When the Houston Rockets dealt Clint Capela and acquired Robert Covington in February, the intent was to usher in a micro-ball brand of hoops that separated themselves from everyone else. They’d always have at least four shooters on the floor, enabling James Harden and Russell Westbrook to feast off of what the organization perceived to be the best spacing in the NBA.
While other teams might tout a talent advantage, this “optimal” offensive context would be enough to compensate and turn the Rockets into a title contender. Bigs were to succumb to the chaos of constant perimeter responsibilities and nobody else had the personnel to mirror their small-ball lineups. Or, at least, that was the hypothetical in which they invested. A second-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, who formulated a counter contingent on Anthony Davis’ rare blend of rim protection and mobility, ensured Houston’s vision remained a hypothetical on the grand stage.
In Davis, the Lakers rostered a scheme-breaking variable unaffected by Houston’s equation. The result was a 4-1 series victory for Los Angeles that illuminated precisely why Davis finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting this season, showcasing his versatility.
Scanning through any raw data from these games without having watched them would make it challenging to uncover how the Lakers thwarted the Rockets’ distinct philosophy. Houston’s offensive rating of 106.8 was poor, but not abysmal. It shot 36.8 percent from deep and 60.8 percent at the rim, two reasonable clips in line with its post-trade production during the regular season. The crux in execution, though, was slowing the Rockets’ tempo and limiting their offensive volume, a plan that mandated Davis as the bedrock.
In 22 games following the Covington trade, Houston launched an average of 48.6 threes and 28 shots at the rim, and zipped around at a pace of 103.83. With Westbrook on the floor, the latter number jumped to 106.6. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder in round one, the Rockets hoisted 51 long balls and 33 shots at the rim each game, playing at a pace of 100.65 (106.04 with Westbrook). This past round, those marks depreciated to 40.8, 24, and 97.1, respectively. Westbrook suffered dramatically, seeing his pace dip to 99.35 for the series. Such a sizable decline was not deliberate from Houston. It was the collateral of a dominant run from Davis, who delayed and deterred a bevy of shots to elongate possessions.
On the ball, he assumed Westbrook as his primary assignment. Sprawling enough to contest jumpers if Westbrook settled and agile with the size to contain drives, Davis erased most of the 2016-17 MVP’s offensive value. The power and burst package Westbrook wields to compromise defenders, generating looks inside or collapsing help for kick-out threes, dissipated in impact. Davis enveloped him, prompting passes after futile slashing attempts or bothering his pull-ups, holding the former All-Star to 9-for-25 shooting for 25 points across 78.4 partial possessions in the series. These were not gimmes sometimes associated with NBA.com’s matchup data, either; Westbrook incurred roadblock after roadblock against the big man.
Once Westbrook’s dribble penetration was curbed, his decision-making shortcomings exacerbated the downward spiral offensively. His easiest reads, those derived from his rim pressure and athleticism, dried up and he unsuccessfully replaced them with off-the-bounce attempts hinging on a deteriorated jumper. Davis limited Westbrook’s advantage creation and manifested his drawbacks when asked to turn elsewhere for offense. Houston’s attack was constrained because the micro-ball experiment necessitated his slashing to thrive in space and as a complement to Harden’s pull-up wizardry, which often induces traps.
That deteriorated jumper also permitted Davis to be aggressive in his help defense strategy. He baited Westbrook into threes or exploited his lack of shooting gravity by brazenly leaving him open off the ball. The Lakers did not concern themselves with Westbrook beyond the arc. Thwarting any other offensive action took priority. Davis’ combination of length (7’5.5 wingspan, 9-foot standing reach) and mobility coalesce in an elite recovery speed and shot contest domain for a big man, and were the at the core of his expertise as a team defender against the Rockets.
Although Davis spent the most time defending Westbrook in this series, he bounced across assignments, embodying a sort of “delayer” role on the perimeter and interior. Houston’s three-point rate of .518 and rim frequency of 30.4 percent resembled its post-trade regular season outputs (.551, 31.8 percent), so Davis didn’t radically shift its shot profile. Rather, he reduced the volume, as articulated earlier. With the Rockets short on big wings or anyone boasting consistent dribble-drive prowess outside of Westbrook and Harden, Davis’ weaponized his 7’5.5 wingspan to deter threes while playing far enough off or brandishing the lateral quickness to dissuade anyone from attacking the rim.
Harden bested him on some drives, but Davis also significantly affected the eight-time All-Star’s pull-up three volume. During the regular season, 48.9 percent of his shots were pull-up threes; against the Lakers, that dropped to 37.2 percent. Some of the fall is attributed to Los Angeles trapping him regularly or funneling him to the bucket, but Davis’ efforts warrant credit as well. On various occasions, he negated a shot in the paint and from deep in the same possession. His defensive performance off the ball and on the perimeter against the Rockets was a masterclass intersection of instincts, physical tools, and awareness. Davis created hurdles all over the court for his counterparts.
His range of coverage on the floor extends to lengths virtually nobody else in the NBA matches. This past round, he could have a hand in the outcome of almost any play defensively. Deterrence is priority No. 1. Davis checked that box. Alteration is priority No. 2. Davis also checked that box. Rather than acting as the traditional rim protector whose services are largely confined to the paint, he acted as a shot protector, applying his size wherever necessary. Location almost felt immaterial (buckle up, it’s a lengthy and worthwhile compilation of plays).
Avoiding hyperbole about Davis’ defense in this series is a delicate tightrope. He isn’t the lone reason Los Angeles tripped up Houston. Danny Green, LeBron James, and Alex Caruso were all very good on that end. Fellow rotation players had their moments, too. Properly timed traps and doubles against Harden, thrusting others into ill-suited decision-making and creation duties, proved highly effective. But it was starkly apparent the degree to which Davis stamped his defensive mark and how the Lakers’ entire approach stemmed from his skill-set.
Trapping, in which he was intermittently featured, relied on him picking up any cutters/slashers or bounding out to make shooters second-guess themselves. Those ball screens the Rockets love that yield switches for Harden weren’t as profitable as they’d prefer when Davis was involved. He rooted himself near the level of the arc to contest any potential Harden three and even stayed in front on enough drives to convince Houston this tango wasn’t the “mismatch” it should consistently target.
Most centers cannot regularly factor into both rim protection and three-point defense. Davis did exactly that because he is not most centers. Moreyball’s hierarchy of these shots and the franchise’s roster construction was unprepared for Davis, who might be the only defender capable of the performance he authored last round (maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo).
Daryl Morey, James Harden, and the Rockets fashioned a legitimately unique brand of offense. Their ruination was an anomalous big man with the arsenal to unravel this style accompanied by the requisite surrounding personnel. Few opponents bring about the entirety of Davis’ defensive versatility. Houston is one of them, and he illustrated his elite malleability for a Lakers club that resembles the title favorite at this juncture.
A Western Conference Finals bout with the Denver Nuggets will present a varied challenge. Nikola Jokic, often operating from the elbows and high post, is going to draw Davis farther from the rim while also confronting him on the block. Denver’s off-ball motion is more complex and prevalent than Houston’s, requiring him to be even more attentive in help. Davis will be tasked with quelling Jamal Murray, too, whose budding pull-up shooting and initiating craft have morphed him into a star of the playoffs.
The Nuggets should serve a stiffer all-around challenge for the Lakers and Davis, but Denver will not roll out the same platform as the Rockets that reinforced what makes him one of the NBA’s three most valuable defenders.