THE ROCKETS REPORT

Rockets go 1-2 to fall back to .500 mark at 9-9

James Harden and the Rockets went 1-2 last week. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

After pulling off an improbable sweep the week before, the Rockets struggled to distance themselves from the .500 mark they had recently positioned themselves around. Houston was able to take the first of a one and one against the Pistons early in the week, but the Pistons would even the season series on Friday in overtime. The Cleveland Cavaliers would deny Houston the opportunity to shrug off the loss and would go on to hand the Rockets their second straight defeat in as many days. Houston is now 9-9, fourth in the Southwest Division, and 11th in the Western Conference.

Game 16: Houston vs Detroit Pistons (W, 126-124)

In a game between two evenly matched teams with similar records, the product on the court certainly delivered. After a closely contested first half, Houston seized control through much of the second half. Pistons Forward Blake Griffin was disinterested in the Rockets 14-point lead late in the fourth and with the help of his five 3-pointers with less than five minutes left in regulation, Detroit found themselves within four points. Harden would take control and ice the game however, finishing the night with a season-high 43 points, 9 assists, and 4 steals. Clint Capela finished with 27 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 blocks.

Game 17: Houston at Detroit Pistons (L, 116-111/OT)

Black Friday found the Rockets taking on the Pistons for a second consecutive game, albeit as visitors this time. This time around, the Pistons were in complete control until a third quarter Houston run seized the lead back. Both teams would trade blows and the score was tied at the end of four. Detroit would pull away in overtime, however, snapping Houston’s five game winning streak. Harden led the effort with 33 points and 8 assists, while Capela turned in an even more monstrous performance from the night before with 29 points, 21 rebounds, and 3 blocks.

Game 18: Houston at Cleveland Cavaliers (L, 117-108)

Chris Paul sat out Saturday night as the Rockets played the Cavaliers in the second part of a back to back where Cleveland controlled the game almost the entire night. Cavs rookie guard Collin Sexton traded highlight reel finishes with Harden as he led Cleveland with 29 points. Harden - forced to shoulder more of the offensive load with Paul out - poured in 40 points and 13 assists while playing the entire second half.

Looking Ahead:

The Rockets have a busy week starting Monday in D.C. against the Wizards. Houston will return home for a Wednesday match against Dallas before heading down I-10 for a Friday game against the Spurs and a Saturday tilt at home with the Bulls. All of these teams this week are very beatable with a healthy Rockets team. I predict a 3-1 week to put some space between the Rockets and their current .500 mark.

 

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 113.4 (5th)

Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.3 (10th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 113.5 (5th)

Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4 (10th)

Biggest developments:

1. Big men defending Russell Westbrook

It's not surprising at all that Quin Snyder was the first head coach to throw an interesting wrinkle defensively at Houston's micro-ball unit. Let's not forget Snyder was the one who copied the Bucks by implementing the "Sit on James Harden's left hip and allow him to go right" strategy in the playoffs last season. However, having a big man defending a non-shooter isn't as revolutionary an idea. The Warriors had Andrew Bogut defend Tony Allen to great success in the second round of the 2015 playoffs to great success.

But Russell Westbrook isn't Tony Allen, so when Jazz big man Rudy Gobert took on the assignment in the first quarter, the Jazz didn't exactly get the results they wanted.

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While not new, it's definitely creative for teams like the Jazz to try this, but it's a better idea in theory than in practice. In theory, since Westbrook's best strength is attacking the basket, placing a rim protector on him and allowing him to shoot should neutralize him. In practice, this only gives Westbrook a head of steam going at the rim and puts the defender on his heels, unprepared for what's coming at him. It also doesn't help that it's Gobert's responsibility to monitor the rest of the floor and play a heavy amount of help defense (as shown in the clip), so he'll be a half-step late in recovering to defend the layup.

The same principle applies to Anthony Davis.

It'll be interesting to see if teams keep trying this tact or if they get even more creative and add a layer of sophistication to it.

2. Rockets starting to figure things out defensively

The Rockets have a 108.7 defensive rating over their last two games (good for 8th in the league in that span), which is actually 1.4 points per 100 possessions better than what they are on the season. If you take away Bojan Bogdanovic's ridiculous game winning shot from Sunday, that number is actually better. It may not seem like a big difference, but it's significant and also becoming very clear that switching is a defense that the Rockets are more comfortable with than the altered drop-back scheme they were working with for the past year.

The biggest reason for Houston's success? Forced turnovers. The Rockets are forcing 18.6 turnovers per game over their last 9 games, which is good for first in the NBA.

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By playing this small, the Rockets are making the very bold claim that they don't have be a good defensive rebounding team to be a good defense. The internal calculus is that they can make up the lost possessions with forced turnovers and in-turn, compete defensively. It challenges everything we've been taught about basketball, but it's why the Rockets are the must-watch team of the closing stretch of the season.

3. Backup center Thabo Sefolosha

Here's something I never expected to say at the beginning of the season: Thabo Sefolosha has become a pretty reliable backup center for Houston. Ignoring the past few rough plus/minus outings (which can be noisy), the Rockets have finally found a practical use for the defensive intelligence of the 35-year-old swingman. At the beginning of the season Sefolosha looked awful and it was starting to look like he'd spend his full season on Houston's bench. However, in this new role, Sefolosha looks reinvigorated.

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Officially, Sefolosha is listed as 6'6", but it's strange because in person (and on television), he looks much taller. It could be his hair, it could be his 7'2" wingspan, but whatever the case, he's found a nice role as the backup center to P.J. Tucker (what a wild sentence to type out). The Rockets are better defensively when Sefolosha's on the floor versus off the floor. He communicates well and just knows where to be and when to be there.

Week of games in review:

You never want to dismiss losses, but the Jazz game was just such an awesome game of two seemingly equal-matched Western Conference foes and the Rockets lost on a last-second shot. Apart from the Rockets allowing Jordan Clarkson to have his way with their defense in the second half, they played a strong game and just lost to a really good team in the end.

In the same token, you don't want to put too much weight on Houston beating the Celtics before heading off to the All-Star break either. Sure, it was an impressive victory, but you almost got the feel that Boston didn't play all of their cards until it was too late, specifically their small-ball lineup of Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. They also foolishly posted up Enes Kanter in the first half and got away from their traditional offense. The Rockets deserve credit for getting the win, but the Celtics also beat themselves in a lot of areas.

Questions for the Rockets after the All-Star break:

1. Can Houston make a run for a top seed in the West?

If the Rockets are going to be make a strong run for a top seed in the Western Conference, now's the time. In addition to getting nine days off for the All-Star break, the Rockets have the 7th easiest schedule remaining (.477 winning percentage) with 28 games remaining in the season. They clearly have a lot of room to grow defensively and you get the feeling they haven't reached their peaks as an offense yet.

Last season, the Rockets went 21-7 in their last 28 games with the second best Net Rating in the NBA (+10.4), so it's not completely crazy to suggest they may have another gear in them this season. They've started the craft their identity after the trade deadline, shortly before this break, which is huge. We know what the Rockets are trying to do and they've bought into it collectively. Houston currently stands two games out of the 4th seed in the West and three games out of the 2nd seed. Every game is significantly more important from here on out.

2. How soon do we Bruno Caboclo take the floor?

In addition to Eric Gordon, the Rockets also have Bruno Caboclo's return to look forward to after the All-Star break. Caboclo was dealing with a knee hyperextension before the break and is set to be cleared very soon. The Rockets traded Jordan Bell for the right to get another look at Caboclo over the next couple years, but they clearly like what they see as they've brought him into their program twice in the past eight months.

This question may have more to do with Houston's ability to get to garbage time in fourth quarters than anything else. It's unlikely Caboclo cracks the rotation at this point, but if he does, he will almost exclusively play backup center. Currently that role is taken by Thabo Sefolosha, but if Caboclo shows something in garbage time, this could get interesting.

He's one week away from possibly being one week away.

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3. Will the Rockets become an all-time offense again?

For the past few years, the Rockets have been breaking records in offensive rating under head coach Mike D'Antoni, but ever since they traded for Russell Westbrook in July, the've stagnated. Westbrook isn't to blame, but since James harden no longer has three quality shooters on the floor around him at all times, things have become a little more clunky.

They're still very good (113.5 Offensive Rating, 5th in the NBA), but they're no longer elite or record-breaking. They've really opened up their ceiling by going four-out before the All-Star break, it's just a matter of if they can return to their ridiculous norm. Right now Russell Westbrook looks great and really comfortable in Houston's spaced out offense and James Harden's starting to come back around after a brutal January, but it'll still be fascinating to monitor.

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