Is This Suddenly Stout Houston Rockets Defense For Real?

For the second straight season, the Rockets sputtered out of the gates to a 3-3 record that, much like last year, was the byproduct of some horrific defensive efforts.

Houston allowed at least 112 points in that opening stretch, giving up 123 or more four times with the defensive low point coming in a 159-158 win over Washington that was the third-highest scoring regulation game in NBA history. It felt an awful lot like their 11-14 open from a year ago, but this time, it didn’t take more than a quarter of the season for them to come together. They’ve since ripped off eight straight wins, most recently blowing out the scuffling Blazers in Portland on Monday night, 132-108.

James Harden has been spectacular over the Rockets’ winning streak, averaging nearly 40 points per game and once again posting near-historic stats that place him at or near the top of the early MVP conversation. As we learned last year, Harden is capable of sustaining this kind of productivity for much, if not all, of the regular season. The scariest thing about his start to this year is that he’s not been his usual efficient shooting self from distance, and one would think his three-point percentage, currently 34 percent, should actually improve as the season wears on.

The addition of Russell Westbrook has also added a dynamic that hasn’t been as prevalent in recent years in Houston, as the Rockets have seen an uptick in fast break points this season (12.4 percent of their offense compared to just 10 percent a year ago). Westbrook is almost the sole reason for this, as he gives them another gear off of a rebound that is notable for this season. Here’s some evidence of this from Monday night.

It seems the questions about whether these two can co-exist on the court have been answered in the affirmative. The two clearly get along off the court better than Harden and Chris Paul did, and that rapport seems to be paying dividends on it, which is important given how difficult it can be to be a ball-dominant guard alongside Harden. The thing that stands out most during their recent run isn’t the offensive production, which has yielded the fourth best offensive rating in the league over this stretch, but what they’re doing defensively.

The Rockets are second in the NBA with a 100.1 defensive rating over this ongoing winning streak, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks. The question is how much of this defensive improvement is the Rockets playing better, and how much of it is simply some luck in the form of teams shooting poorly against them.

Houston’s wins during this streak have come against the Grizzlies, Warriors, Bulls, Pelicans, Clippers, Pacers, Timberwolves, and Blazers. The first four of those teams don’t inspire much confidence, but the last four are more impressive, even if the Blazers have failed to meet expectations to this point of the season. In those eight wins, Houston’s opponents have posted a dismal 41.6/27.3/76.1 shooting split in those games, with that three-point percentage being the most jarring of them all.

No team knows the reality of the old cliche that the NBA is a make or miss league more than the Rockets, who have seen their Finals dreams die by the hand of a cold shooting night, and while there are improvements on defense to be commended, some of their recent success comes down to teams missing good looks against them. Opponents are shooting just 36.1 percent on wide open looks (no defender within six-plus feet) against the Rockets during the winning streak and just 31.4 percent on wide open threes, per NBA Stats. Wide open shots account for over 22 percent of the shots teams are taking against Houston during the win streak, with another 27.9 percent being categorized as open (defender within 4-6 feet).

There is an art to giving up the right open shots by making sure they’re being taken by lesser shooters, and they’ve done that a bit. However, when Kawhi Leonard gets 18 uncontested looks (making eight) and C.J. McCollum gets 17 uncontested looks (making nine), it does indicate that there is a luck element at play in just how good Houston’s defense has looked. Even factoring that in, what they’ve done is impressive over this stretch based solely on the fact that the squad looks more willing to make defense more of a priority much quicker than it took last year to flip the same switch.

The defensive efficiency numbers the Rockets have put up over this win streak seem like a lock to regress, but there are still good things they are doing that are actually sustainable. While they give up the fifth most corner threes of any team in the league on a percentage basis, they are ninth best in the NBA at keeping teams from getting shots at the rim (only 33.9 percent of opposing attempts), per Cleaning The Glass,

A big factor there is Clint Capela’s return to high productivity on both ends — including a 22-point, 20-rebound effort against Portland — is a big factor for Houston, as he appears to be back to being the fearsome rim protector and rebounder that earned him a hefty contract two summers ago. When Capela is on the floor, the Rockets’ defensive rebounding percentage is 75.5 percent, compared to 69.5 percent when he’s off the court, as he pulls down 28.2 percent of opposing missed shots, placing him in the 97th percentile of bigs in the NBA, per Cleaning The Glass. Along with rebounding, they also foul significantly less when Capela is roaming the paint, with an opponent free throw rate of .181 compared to .323 when he’s not on the court.

Capela returning to form as the ultimate safety blanket at the back end, capable of deterring shots at the rim while also not fouling by being a master of verticality is huge for Houston. Maybe most importantly, Capela seems likely to be able to stay on the floor against the top contenders in the West this year compared to the battles with Golden State in which small-ball lineups ran him to the bench. The Lakers, Nuggets, and Jazz all throw out more traditional lineups with centers in them, while the Clippers often have Montrezl Harrell on the floor, who isn’t going to pull him away from the basket.

Capela staying on the court is critical as the team’s preferred starting five is putting the clamps on foes on the defensive end of the floor. According to Cleaning the Glass, Houston’s played 294 of its 1,418 possessions this year with Westbrooks, Harden, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, and Capela on the floor. Mike D’Antoni’s second most-used lineup has been on the floor for 63 possessions. While Houston’s top group has scored 111.2 points per 100 possession, putting them in the 61st percentile of all lineups, they’ve been stout defensively. Those five players are allowing 89.2 points per 100 possessions, placing them in the 93rd percentile of lineups. Opponents don’t hit shots against them (47.5 effective field goal percentage), and they force a whole lot of mistakes (19.4 turnover percentage). While their offense looks to get calibrated, their defense is giving them time to figure things out.

That Harden and Westbrook are a part of that is also highly encouraging. Westbrook has long been a master of creating havoc, but sometimes to the detriment of team defense as a whole. Harden, meanwhile, has never been known for his defensive effort, but it’s clear that both are locked in and active on that end when playing together, which bodes well for crunch time lineups and the postseason.

The Rockets probably aren’t going to be a top-five defensive unit for the entire season, as one would expect opponent shooting on good looks to get better. That said, their activity on that end and Capela’s return to form indicates that their season-long ranking in the middle of the league could stand to improve, which would still be a massive step forward from the very start of the season.

Houston needs that to be the case if they’re going to challenge the L.A. teams and other top contenders in the West. Harden’s heroics will make for MVP conversation fodder all season, but the Rockets defense will be the determining factor of whether they belong in the title argument as well.