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NBA Daily: Rockets’ Championship Hopes Rest With Revamped Defense

Houston is known for its offensive firepower, but its revamped defense may be the catalyst for a deep playoff run, writes Jesse Blancarte.

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The Houston Rockets are well known for their offensive prowess. James Harden is arguably the most impactful singular offensive force in the NBA, Chris Paul is still one of the best offensive orchestrators in the league and Mike D’Antoni is the coach who ushered in the pace-and-space era in the mid-2000s. However, when the games matter most in the postseason, it will be the Rockets’ defense that will likely determine whether Houston can win it all or fall short of their championship aspirations.

In year’s past, the Rockets had a few effective defensive players that were able to help Houston maintain a near league average defensive rating. But the Rockets never had an ace that anchored the team’s defense and made up for the shortcomings of his teammates consistently. Dwight Howard was supposed to be that player for Houston, but past injuries seemed to limit his impact on both ends of the court. After falling short in previous postseason runs and with the Golden State Warriors still featuring arguably the most talented team in league history, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey looked to bridge the gap with some significant roster moves last summer.

Trading for Chris Paul was of course the team’s signature move last offseason. In the deal for Paul, the Rockets sent point guard Patrick Beverley, among other players, to the Los Angeles Clippers. Beverley is a tenacious defensive player in his own right, but Paul can be just as effective as an individual defender and is arguably the superior team-defender. However, it was primarily the additions of Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker, as well as a new emphasis on team-defense that have turned the Rockets into a top-10 defense this season (18th last season), which has them positioned as a legitimate candidate to challenge the Warriors in Western Conference race to the Finals.

Basketball Insiders recently spoke with Tucker, Mbah a Moute and center Clint Capela about the team’s revamped defense, how it can still improve, the team’s explosive offense and more.

“We’re just going to take it one game at a time for now but for sure,” Tucker said when asked if the team now has the defensive personnel to win the championship this season. “We don’t want to look ahead of ourselves but we know we have a defensive core as good as any defense in the league and we think we’ve been underachieving so far so we just want to get better and be in the top-3 of overall defense.”

In discussing Houston’s defense with Rockets players, it is evident that there is a lot of confidence in the team’s defensive abilities but there is also a lot of internal scrutiny as well.

“We are one of the last teams in transition defense so we got to make sure to tighten up on that more,” said Mbah a Moute. “Obviously, half court we’ve been able to switch…that’s been good for us because we got a lot of guys of the same size who can guard different positions so we can still improve on our transition defense and rebounding.”

With the addition of players like Tucker, Mbah a Moute and Paul, along with holdovers like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Capela, the Rockets have the ability to switch aggressively without leaving themselves overly vulnerable to mismatches. A common theme among Rockets players is the emphasis the team has placed on switching effectively on defense and utilizing the versatility of their key defensive players.

“It’s really helpful with switching a lot,” Capela said when asked about playing center with top-notch wing defenders around him. “All the perimeter players do a good job on the bigs, getting them out of the paint. It’s been really efficient for us and I hope we are going to keep doing a good job at it and stay focused.

“We switch a lot this year and I feel comfortable being on guards sometimes so it’s been really efficient for us so far. Just want to keep doing that. Like I said we just have to keep doing it…don’t just switch to be soft, switch because it helps the defense.”

When asked about the team’s ability to switch effectively, Tucker mentioned several players but noted that Capela’s ability to protect the rim and switch onto smaller players on the perimeter is a key component of Houston’s defense.

“Clint can guard the ball well too. He can get out there…he guards guards just as well as any big or any center in the league so just that dynamic advantage,” Tucker said. “Everyone having everybody’s back and Clint’s ability to do that helps make our defense good.”

From point guard to center, the Rockets feature a group of players that can push ball-handlers out beyond the three-point line, fight over screens, switch onto bigger players, rotate quickly and execute double teams when necessary. Houston doesn’t have a Draymond Green, healthy Kawhi Leonard, Andre Roberson or Rudy Gobert level defender but they have several versatile defenders that together formulate stout defensive units.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. Golden State’s gotta a couple people like that…maybe Boston. I’m not sure,” Tucker said when asked whether any other team features a defensive duo like he and Mbah a Moute. “But I know we got guys. Trevor Ariza can switch on a lot of guys and honestly James [Harden] switches on guys 1-5 as well so we got quite a few guys that can do it at a high level. I think that’s what makes our defense so good.

“Chris is so good with his hands and Eric is a bull so he can hold his weight down there and don’t need to help as much. But like I said we got other guys to help cover it up and we got so many different lineups and that helps.”

Mbah a Moute echoes Tucker’s thoughts on the matter.

“I think we are definitely right up there with anyone,” said Mbah a Moute. “There’s a lot of teams that can switch in the NBA so we’re fortunate to have the personnel and the philosophy to where it works to our advantage so just have to get tight with it and continue to get better.”

There are times where Houston will struggle to adjust to a mismatch or will simply go through the paces on defense for an extended period of time. This was evident in Houston’s recent matchup against the Clippers in which Montrezl Harrell went off for 22 points in 29 minutes on 9-14 shooting from the field. The Rockets often got caught with smaller players guarding Harrell in the post and frequently got outworked by Harrell on transition breakaways. However, Houston stifled just about every other Clipper players and ended up with a convincing win at Staples Center.

A big part of Houston’s offense is generated through their defense, which isn’t something they could rely on in year’s past. Houston’s offense is designed to generate as many efficient scoring opportunities as possible and with an aggressive defense now consistently creating open looks, it’s no surprise that Houston is second in offensive efficiency (behind only the Warriors). Additionally, Harden and Paul have meshed their talents more effectively than many would have predicted before the start of the season.

With so much defensive versatility and a superstar backcourt to lead the team’s offense, Houston is primed to take on the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy. To their credit, Houston’s players are staying focused on the opponents in front of them and aren’t looking ahead to a potential matchup with Golden State.

“I don’t know,” Tucker said when asked about Houston’s previous matchups with the Warriors and what to expect in future matchups. “I honestly haven’t thought about Golden State because we don’t play them again this season so we’ve been thinking about all these other teams so I can’t answer.”

Tucker is correct that, at this point, Houston is not scheduled to play Golden State again this season. But it’s fair to imagine a scenario in which these two teams will eventually see each other in this year’s playoffs. Golden State should be considered the favorite at this point, but, without saying it explicitly, Houston is collectively confident they have a real shot at pushing the Warriors in a seven-game series.

“I think we have everything we need,” said Mbah a Moute when asked whether this team lacks anything from a personnel standpoint. “We just got to get better. We have to get better at what we do — switching matchups, transition defense is big for us. Our rotation…off the switch or off the drive. We just gotta get better, I think we have everything we need.”

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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