Rockets Get Defensive
Houston's defense on the rise as team looks to wrap up homestand on winning note
HOUSTON - Throughout the vast majority of this season, the Rockets’ typical post-practice refrain has centered on the club’s commitment and dedication toward improvement on the defensive end. Houston’s proficiency in that area has been a season-long work in progress, full of fits and starts, ups and downs and all the other typical trademarks of a young and inexperienced squad still struggling to find its feet.
Recently, however, the Rockets have shown real, tangible signs of defensive growth, with none representing more of a significant step forward than Sunday’s thrilling 96-95 win over San Antonio. Given the opponent and circumstances at hand, a strong case can be made that Houston’s defensive effort against the Spurs was the team’s finest of the season. With Omer Asik serving as the fulcrum of the Rockets’ resistance, Houston was able to produce the sort of 48-minute performance that had eluded the club up to that point, especially when matched up against elite competition. It is, after all, one thing to shut down the injury-ravaged Cavaliers (as the Rockets had done two nights before); quite another to slow the high octane, energy efficient, precision attack possessed by San Antonio.
While Sunday’s effort certainly stands as the most significant development of Houston’s season-long homestand, it hardly represents an outlier relative to the rest of the Rockets’ handiwork over the past two weeks. Houston’s defensive rating (points conceded per 100 possessions) during the first six games of its seven-game home stretch: 93.1 – a mark that would lead the league if it stood for the entirety of the season. The Rockets’ defensive rating for the season, it should be noted, is 103.7 – a number that currently has them ranked 19th in the league in defensive efficiency.
A few notes regarding those numbers: There’s no question Houston’s schedule has played a significant part in the team’s stingy numbers during its homestand. Phoenix is dead last in offensive efficiency, Minnesota is 25th and Cleveland, though a relatively decent 18th, was missing All-Star Kyrie Irving and rookie Dion Waiters when the Cavs came to town last week. Certainly, then, some perspective must be applied. That said, it’s also the reason why the San Antonio game represented such a meaningful stepping-stone. After showing glimmers of defensive growth against inferior competition, the Rockets proved those flashes were not merely fool’s gold, but rather something upon which the team can truly build going forward.
So the question must be asked: after spending so much time talking about improving on the defensive end throughout the season, what finally changed to bring about a breakthrough?
“Our effort, our communication, us being on the same page,” said James Harden Tuesday following the team’s practice. “A lot of teams that have been together for a long time – you look at the Celtics, you look at the Spurs, all of those good teams – they’ve been together for a couple years and they’re very good defensively. This is our first year together as a unit and I think we’re doing a pretty good job. We still have a long way to go but the improvement that we’ve been making throughout the entire season is definitely on the right path.”
To be sure, Harden is onto something there. For all the talk dedicated to the importance of chemistry and cohesion on the offensive end, those characteristics are no less important when attempting to establish a blueprint for sustained defensive success. The creation of such attributes typically takes time, too; a reality that can be easy to occasionally overlook or underestimate simply because Houston’s offense came together and took off into the stratosphere in such short order. But there’s likely something else at play as well; after all, nothing motivates quite like the sting of a series of heartbreaking losses or the sense of urgency that sets in amid the hotly-contested race for postseason positioning.
“The seriousness of the playoff push,” responded Chandler Parsons when asked to explain the Rockets’ recent defensive improvement. “I think that we’ve learned a lot from the losses we’ve had, just not playing a lot of good defense. We’ve had a lot of tough encounters that stung. I think as you go through the season you learn some things and you realize where you’ve got to get better and I think we all know that we need to get better defensively.”
The challenge continues Wednesday when the Pacers come to town. Indiana, of course, is known far more for its work on the defensive end of the floor where the Pacers rank as the NBA’s No. 1 team. Their size and length allow them to suffocate opponents on a regular basis, as does their ability to force opposing teams into shooting from the least desirable areas on the floor. Indiana ranks No.1 in opponent field goal percentage from both the corners and the restricted area – not coincidentally the two most high-value shot locations in the game.
Not to be overlooked, however, is the Pacers’ offense, an outfit that sits just 19th in the league for the season but one which has produced at a top-10 rate over the course of the team’s past 20 games. What remains to be seen, though, is just how many of their top weapons will be able to suit up. The injury bug has hit Indiana hard of late, with David West missing the club’s last five games with a back issue, while fellow starters George Hill and Lance Stephenson missed Monday’s contest against Atlanta as well. Stephenson appears ready to play according to the Indianapolis Star’s Curt Cavin, but West, Hill and Danny Granger – out most of the season due to a knee injury – are all considered questionable.
Regardless of who plays, however, the Rockets realize the importance of finishing their homestand on a strong note, especially with a brutal Grizzlie-Clippers back-to-back awaiting them this weekend.
“My college coach used to always say, ‘Not everything is right when you win and not everything is wrong when you lose,’” said Jeremy Lin. “Just because we’ve won (five-of-six) we need to make sure we understand we’ve had a soft schedule and we can’t get complacent.”
Wednesday’s contest between the Pacers and Rockets represents a rematch of their January 18 clash that saw Indiana roll to a 105-95 victory. Though little can be considered too terribly worthwhile from that meeting – aside from the Pacers’ current injury woes potentially shifting the shape of Wednesday’s game, Houston was also a very different squad back in January given its pre-trade roster, not to mention the fact that matchup occurred amid the Rockets’ seven-game swoon – the performance of Paul George certainly stands out, especially since his load is likely to be even heavier if Indiana is indeed missing some of its top talent Wednesday. George was sensational that night against Houston, scoring 31 points while knocking down seven of his 10 shots from beyond the arc. His defense, too, was downright elite as he played a huge role in forcing James Harden into a 5-of-19 night from the field with five turnovers added to the mix as well.
Much of the responsibility of slowing the Pacers’ Most Improved Player candidate promises to fall upon Chandler Parsons. And as is always the case when Parsons finds himself part of a marquee matchup, the Florida product says he relishes the opportunity to go against the game’s best.
“He’s made himself into a great player,” Parsons said. “I have so much respect for him. He was really the first NBA player I did a workout with coming into the NBA and I always thought he was really, really good. With Granger going down this year, his role has expanded. Really he was a shooting guard before but he’s playing the small forward because Granger is out.
“He’s got good size, he’s long, he’s sneaky on the defensive end, he gets in passing lanes. Offensively, he’s so talented. He can shoot the ball, he can handle it and he’s a great player. I get hyped for every game but when you play against a guy like Paul, you definitely get more hyped, especially since he hit shots on me last game, you want to come in here and limit those.”