Back in October, when Draymond Green of the Warriors was asked to assess the Rockets’ offseason efforts to narrow the gap between Houston and Golden State, Green didn’t mince words.
“They want [a matchup with us] to be a shootout, which is fine,” he said. “But we’re gonna play some defense. Yeah, we score pretty well. But we’re a damn good defensive team, too.” Green, last season’s defensive player of the year, was clearly implying that the same couldn’t be said for Houston, which ranked in the lower half of the league defensively the past two seasons.
Green also seized upon a remark from Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni about neither team being able to stop the other. “I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” he said.
But a quarter of the way through the season, that question is no longer up for debate: Houston’s defense is elite, and it could finally make the Rockets balanced enough to challenge Golden State.
With an immense focus on the Houston offense — specifically, its addition of nine-time All-Star Chris Paul and its continuing 3-point shot crusade — the team’s vast improvement on defense has flown beneath the radar. Entering Thursday’s game with the red-hot Utah Jazz, Houston’s defense is surrendering just 100.9 points per 100 possessions, fifth-best in the league. That defensive rating is slightly better than the Warriors’ and represents a night-and-day difference from last season, when the Rockets ranked just 18th, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions.
A handful of things explain why the club’s defense has performed so well after a pair of lackluster defensive seasons. Among them: The Rockets have gotten much better at protecting the rim and other high-value spots on the court that once troubled them; the team’s weakest defenders are performing better (or getting luckier?) than they did in the past; and Houston has used its own scoring ability to pay dividends on the other end.
Of course many of these improvements, if not all of them, stem from the same thing: the club’s getting solid, versatile defenders during the offseason. Paul’s track record on that end is well chronicled — he’s a perennial leader in steals. But because he was replacing fellow all-defensive first-team member Patrick Beverley, other pickups have had even greater opportunities to take the unit to new heights.
Wing players PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have been game changers for this defense, giving the Rockets — who already had one of the league’s very best perimeter defenders in an overburdened Trevor Ariza — the ability to switch assignments on the fly when teams set screens against them. They communicate well and don’t get lost backdoor (an area the Rockets struggled mightily with last season). And because both players are tall and strong enough to defend three different positions, Houston can use extremely quick smallball lineups with them, Paul and MVP candidate James Harden, who for years was criticized for his inattentive defense.
To get a sense of how just valuable Tucker and Mbah a Moute have been as primary and help defenders, consider this: The Rockets are allowing just 94.1 points per 100 possessions with that duo on the floor this season, third-best in the NBA among two-man lineups that have shared at least 300 minutes together thus far. (Only Boston’s Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart and OKC’s Paul George and Andre Roberson have been better.) At times, Houston almost looks as though it’s playing a zone — with each defender responsible for a man and a half — because of how synchronized the defense is with Tucker and Mbah a Moute. Watch here, as the Nets struggle to get anywhere near the lane because of how every ballhandler sees two Rockets ready to make a play on the ball.
Even when only one of them is in the game, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, who has been fantastic this season on both ends, is another option aside from Ariza. And because of the trust that Tucker and Mbah a Moute have helped establish, Clint Capela and Nene, the team’s bigs, have felt comfortable wandering farther out on the perimeter to meet opposing ballhandlers. That was often a big mistake last season, when the Rockets ranked dead last in rim protection and allowed opponents to shoot 67 percent from inside the restricted area. (This season, Houston has leaped into the top half of the league on that defensive metric.)
With smarter, more switchable defenders on the floor, the Rockets have also taken away many of the corner 3-point opportunities that were there for opponents in years past. And so far this season, Houston ranks among the NBA’s top 10 in limiting those attempts. That’s a big shift from last year, when the Rockets were among the 10 worst teams at stifling 3-point attempts from the corner, and the year before, when Houston’s opponents took a greater share of their 3-point attempts from the corner than any other team’s.
Perhaps the biggest shift that has taken place this season: Out of nowhere, Houston has become the NBA’s best defensive-rebounding club, nabbing 81.4 percent of opponent’s misses. Limiting second chances is key for the Rockets, who ranked 21st last year and were last in 2015-16, Dwight Howard’s final season with the team.
None of this is to say that the Rockets aren’t capable of backsliding on defense. One area they haven’t gotten better in, transition defense, is something an uptempo team like the Warriors could exploit. (We illustrated last season that Harden — despite his ridiculous passing ability — often gets back on defense slowly after a turnover or what he perceives to be a missed call.) And even though the Rockets have had no issues getting stops in half-court situations, there are indications that they’ve been the beneficiaries of good fortune at times. Only three teams (Cleveland, Orlando and New York) are surrendering higher-quality shots than Houston, according to data from Second Spectrum.
Some of those looks have stemmed from opponents getting wide-eyed when they see an opportunity to go 1-on-1 against Harden or the slow-footed Ryan Anderson, who has been isolated more than anyone this season outside of the Lakers’ Julius Randle. Both players have held their own — especially Harden, who’s allowing one of the lowest scoring rates among guards on those plays, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology. But it’s unclear whether that would hold up for an entire season (Anderson’s case is worth watching, because teams are challenging him 2.5 times a game).
If anything, though, there’s reason to suspect that the Rockets could get even better on defense before the season concludes. Much has been made of the Harden-Paul duo, which has yet to fully jell because of Paul’s early-season injury. But if those two figure out how to play off each other and make an already impeccable offense even better, it will pay enormous dividends on the other side of the ball.
Houston is sloppy with the ball and bad in transition defense, but they lead the NBA in defensive efficiency after a made basket this season, allowing just 95 points per 100 possessions, according to Inpredictable.
So, when it’s Rockets vs. Warriors, we aren’t going to see a 1990s-style Eastern Conference slugfest, in which the first team to 90 points wins, break out anytime soon. These teams shoot too well for that to happen. But it’s time to stop wondering whether Houston has the defensive horses to be mentioned in the same sentence with Golden State — this Rockets team is different.