Team In Transition

Rockets refocusing on fixing transition defense in time for final postseason push
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - Transition defense has been a season-long bugaboo of sorts for the Houston Rockets. And while tonight’s showdown against the relatively slow-paced Utah Jazz (Utah ranks 19th in the NBA in terms of pace of play) doesn’t figure to be the toughest of tests for Houston in that regard, it’s still an issue the Rockets know they must get a handle on as the team enters the final stages of its playoff push.

According to Synergy Sports, Houston sits 26th in the league in transition defense, conceding a robust 1.205 points per possession in transition opportunities to their opponents. Where do the breakdowns lie? As with just about any problem, the answer does not hinge upon any one single thing but rather consists of a multi-layered solution that contains the need for greater communication, effort, execution (on both sides of the ball, it should be noted, since bad offense can rapidly lead to bad defense) and, yes, experience. 

So frequently the latter point is thought of only in offensive terms, but experience is of course just as critical on the other side of the ball. It’s easy to implore players to run back faster and exert more energy in transition defense and, to be sure, that sort of tireless work rate can overcome a lot of flaws. But working smarter is just as important as working harder. Transition defense is not just as simple racing back to shadow your man the second the other team assumes control of the ball via a turnover or missed shot. It relies upon an oft-overlooked help-and-recovery strategy that requires a significant amount of time to hone and perfect until it becomes second nature.

Houston head coach Kevin McHale tackled that topic head-on today following this morning’s shootaround.

“Transition defense is a direct correlation to how many turnovers we’re having,” he said. “If we keep our turnovers low, our transition defense is okay. Our defense in the half-court has been pretty solid almost all year long, but then we shoot ourselves in the foot with having 12-to-15 turnovers from half-court to the top of the key, or free throw line to the half-court – those are almost impossible to come back on. Where we also get in trouble in transition is when a long rebound comes out and we don’t track it down; it gets tipped out and they get out and run.

“We worked on our transition defense again. I thought we had that bugaboo out of the equation a little bit but it kind of crept back in with a bunch of new guys. There are certain things in our league where experience – you just can’t replace it. Transition defense is one of them. I’ve got to be processing who’s running down, how far you’re ahead. If I’m a big, I’m trying to get back to my big, but if I can’t I’ve got to take your guy. Then as soon as I can, I’ve got to change with my guard and get matched up. All that stuff requires a lot of communication and a lot of thought that is not conscious thought, but it’s just repetition where you kind of (naturally) do it. We had that but now it’s kind of a new group and we’re back to fighting it a little bit.”