“James Harden doesn’t play defense. The Houston Rockets don’t play winning basketball”. They’re both tales as old as time…or as old as the last 5 years. When discussing basketball, those claims are often made to dismiss Harden and the Rockets. However, since the NBA has restarted, the Rockets have actively done everything in their power to dispute those claims. They’re 2-1 in their first 3, including wins over Dallas (7th in the West) and Milwaukee (1st in the East), James Harden got a key stop when guarding Giannis in the 4th quarter, and the Rockets have overall played clutch basketball in the 4th quarter. The proof? It’s all in the numbers.
The Rockets have a battle plan for each game. They have 3 goals they hope to accomplish: Win the turnover battle, win the three point battle, and win the free throw battle. When they win these three battles, they feel like there’s a good chance the result is a W. As easy as it might seem, traditionalist have a hard time accepting that theory. They refuse to accept a game plan that doesn’t care for big men or rebounds, which is understandable. With the Rockets not having a traditional center, it seems like it would be easy to post up, out-rebound, and win by dominating the paint. However, as the Mavericks and Bucks have found out, it isn’t quite that easy.
The Houston Rockets opened up their season against the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks, while led by Luka Dončić, have a 7’3 “unicorn” by the name of Kristaps Porziņģis along with 7’4 Boban Marjanović, so surely they would dominate the Rockets…right? It certainly did look that way at the start, but as the game dwindled down in the 4th quarter and into overtime, things started to turn around as the Rockets won their key battles. The Rockets, who were down 10 at halftime, ended up taking the win in overtime. How did they do it? They won the big three, well at least a majority of the big three. While the Rockets lost the overall 3 point shooting (19/48 ~ 39.6% to 21/49 ~ 42.9%), they won the free throw battle (30/39 ~ 76.9% to 28/38 ~ 73.7%) and the turnover battle (9 to 20). The question that might run across your mind is “How does that reflect their defense?”. The ability to win the turnover battle by such a large margin while also winning the FT battle shows how committed Houston is on the defensive side of the ball to clean switches, playing passing lanes, and running their system to perfection. They close out shots without creating a foul, they pick a ball handler’s pocket without committing a violation and have a scheme that can harass and annoy the elite players in the game without fouling. What is even more impressive is that this playstyle has worked in the 4th quarter. Entering the 4th quarter, the Rockets trailed by 11 points. However, in the 4th quarter and OT, they shot 20% higher from the field (14/28 ~ 50% to 11/37 ~ 30%) and won the turnover battle by +2 (5 turnovers to Dallas’s 7) while outscoring Dallas by 15 (45 points to 30 points). The result of this three-point (no pun intended) game plan? A win. Their next game? Against the best team in the league: The Milwaukee Bucks.
To say Houston’s game against Milwaukee went similar to their game against Dallas would be a fair statement. The Rockets, overall, shot better when it came to three-point shots (21/61 ~ 34.4% to 9/35 ~ 25.7%), shot better at the free-throw line (27/31 ~ 87.1% to 17/23 ~ 73.9%), and won the turnover battle by a 13 margin (9 turnovers to Milwaukee’s 22). When it came down to crunch time (4th quarter), the Rockets didn’t shoot as well as the Bucks from the field, (Houston shot 8/19 ~ 42% to Milwaukee’s 12/26 ~ 46%) but outscored the Bucks 31 to 26 and won the turnover battle by a +4 margin (2 turnovers to Milwaukee’s 6). Despite being dominated on the boards and in the paint (Milwaukee had 40 more points in the paint and 29 more rebounds), the Rockets were able to use their positionless lineup to effectively switch on screens, trap ballhandlers, and quickly close out on three-point shots, which led to fastbreak points. While the Dallas and Milwaukee games show the ceiling of this style when it works, the Portland game showed what can happen when things don’t go Houston’s way.
Against Portland, the Rockets were able to win the turnover battle, however, it was only by a +2 margin (10 turnovers to Portland’s 12). As noted above, the Rockets were able to win that battle by a larger margin against Dallas and Milwaukee, which allowed for a tightly contested battle at the free-throw and three-point line while still winning the game. However, when the turnover is only a +2 margin, the shooting becomes much more important and this is a game where Houston could not get their shots to fall. They got out-shot at the free-throw line (15/24 ~ 62.5% to 20/29 ~ 69%) and three-point line (19/53 ~ 35.8% to 12/31 ~ 38.7%), which ultimately led to an 8 point loss. This wasn’t a case of falling apart late in the game but more of a “too little too late” deal. The Rockets won the turnover battle 1 to 3 in the 4th, shot better from the field (8/21 ~ 38% to 7/19 ~ 37%), but were outscored 22 to 24. Despite the loss to Portland, there was an underlying theme that held true throughout all of their bubble games to this point.
Turnover percentage is a stat that estimates how many turnovers will be committed by a team per 100 plays. The lower the percentage is, the fewer turnovers commit and vice versa. During the regular season, the Rockets had a turnover percentage of 13.8%, which was 9th in the league. Since restarting in the bubble, though? The Rockets have a turnover percentage of 8.1%. While there aren’t stats for just the bubble on a league-wide scale, that 8.1% would be the lowest turnover percentage in the league by 4% (based on the stats from before the March shutdown). Now, while that is more an indication of their offense, they’ve also forced a considerably high turnover percentage in their two wins. They forced the Mavericks into a 14.1% while forcing the Bucks into an astonishing 17.7%. The one game where the turnover percentage wasn’t incredibly high? The loss against Portland, who they forced into just a 10% turnover percentage. What does this ultimately say about Houston? It says that they have done a very impressive job of keeping the ball clean on their end and forcing the ball out of their opponent’s hands.
For a team that is stuck with the stigma of not playing defense and not playing “winning basketball”, the Rockets have sure done the opposite. They’ve gone 2-1 in their first three, with the two wins being against playoff teams. They’ve managed to turn up the pressure in the clutch and have found their winning formula. As long as they continue to run their system as they have and avoid another historic shooting drought (looking at the 27 missed threes in the playoffs), they have cemented their spot as title contenders.