Rockets Find Silver Lining in Defensive Performance vs. Mavericks

Michael Shapiro

The Rockets' defense didn't exactly have an easy task on Friday night, squaring off against the NBA's No. 1 offense. But even considering the job at hand, Houston's defensive performance was downright abysmal for much of its 153-149 overtime victory. The opponent seemed almost immaterial. 

Luka Doncic and the Mavericks got off to a blistering start on Friday, dropping 85 first-half points in their first seeding game. Houston was continuously broken down at the point of attack, and Doncic's strolls down the lane created a slate of open looks. The Rockets over-rotated and failed to execute numerous switches in the opening 24 minutes, giving Dallas a double-digit halftime lead despite James Harden's first-quarter eruption. Houston's defensive effort early exactly didn't portend an extended run in Orlando. 

The Rockets are bound to run into at least some semblance of defensive issues given their personnel. Dallas punished Houston on the boards on Friday night, tallying 13 more second-chance points than Harden and Co. Kristaps Porzingis finished the night with 36 points, and Boban Marjanovic even did a brief Wilt Chamberlain impression. But those issues can be managed, if not fully overcome. P.J. Tucker and James Harden are impactful post defenders. Robert Covington and Russell Westbrook wreak havoc in passing lanes. Sheer effort can make up for Houston's personnel shortcomings.

Houston's defensive issues provided consistent frustration for head coach Mike D'Antoni through three quarters on Friday. The final 12 minutes of regulation marked a significant reversal. The Rockets began to rotate precisely and persistently, showing off the defensive communication that had become a true focal point in the lead up to the NBA restart. Houston allowed 20 points in the fourth quarter on Friday. It held Dallas to just 10 in overtime. The Rockets' defensive woes to start the contest were worrisome, though their resilience late provides significant confidence as the postseason approaches. 

“Our confidence defensively was building, especially in that fourth quarter,” Harden said postgame. “We were knocking down shots. We kept getting stops. We kept chipping away, chipping away in the middle of that fourth quarter. They gave us an opportunity. At the end of the day, we gave ourselves a chance. 

Perhaps the Rockets' lack of size will prove to be their death blow in 2020. No team in recent memory has attempted to pull of Houston's small-ball rotation. No team in history has reached the Finals with such little size. But there is a blueprint to defensive success in Orlando. The Rockets thrive when they swarm with a vengeance, rotating and forcing turnovers at a rapid rate. Houston's formula is certainly unconventional. It proved to be worthwhile in the fourth quarter on Friday. 

Comments (3)
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I'd like to see D'Antoni really clamp down on the minutes and expand the rotation. His past has always been to tighten rotations in the playoffs, but he's never had to coach a team that requires this much energy. We know the Rockets are going to run on offense, pair that with the need to bring max effort on defense and it's a recipe to watch the Rockets flame out before ever reaching the Finals. Use some of those high energy guys like Caboclo, Frazier, and Clemons early in games with the very clear goal of high energy defense and running their opponents into the ground.

We saw before the break what asking these guys to do night in and night out can do. It ruins bodies and breaks wills. Fatigue makes cowards of all men.


Rockets really clamped down late