(Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Article Written by Itamar Roitman (@Itamar1710)


The Houston Rockets are 3-1 in the bubble so far, including wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. Here are my 5 takeaways of the first 4 bubble games:

  1. Teams are terrified of James Harden

It’s no secret that the Rockets have one of the most prolific offenses in NBA history, surrounding their 2 star players with 4 shooters anytime they step on the court. And much has been written about how going small has effected Rockets’ star Russell Westbrook.

But teams are mostly content with letting Russell Westbrook beat them in iso, as long as they limit the production of his supporting cast. With Harden? Not so much.

The Dallas Mavericks tried guarding Harden with single coverage for roughly 6 minutes before he forced them to adjust by scoring 23 points on 6-6 shooting in the first quarter. The Bucks completely collapsed towards the paint every time he went by his man, therefore leaving open shooters from the corner consistently, the Blazers doubled him off the opening tip and the Lakers didn’t have a consistent gameplan in the first half, so he made them pay by dropping 25 points on 8-11 shooting.

I mean, just look at this absurdity. No player in NBA history has ever been treated like this:

As a result of the double teams and the continued pressure the Rockets’ stars put on opposing defenses, Houston is attempting a mind-boggling 28.3 wide-open 3s per game in the bubble through the first 4 seeding games, which is 7 more than the 2nd place Brooklyn Nets, and they’re hitting those 3s at a 40.7% clip.

The Rockets are getting some very valuable reps against playoffs-level defensive coverages, which is something I’m sure will help in the postseason.

James Harden, by the way, is still doing his thing, averaging 33.8 PPG and 9 APG on 52.9 FG% and 72.3 TS% over the past 4 games.

2. The Rockets defense is working

Houston’s defense is designed to make teams go away from what they usually do, which often results in doing things they’re not as good at. And that’s exactly what has happened through the first 4 bubble games.

Let’s take a look at the Mavs game, for example. Kristaps Porzingis went off for 39 points on 13-26 shooting and 10-11 from the free throw line, including 15 first-quarter points, and the Mavericks kept feeding him in the high post.

But Porzingis is not a good post player. He is scoring 0.83 points per possession on post-ups this season, which ranks in the 23rd percentile amongst all players. I’m sure the Rockets are fine with each and every one of these shots, especially if it means the team with the best offensive rating in the NBA is changing it’s offense to get them:

When it was Milwaukee’s turn to face the Rockets, the Bucks decided to throw it to Brook Lopez down low like it was 2013 again.

Lopez had one of his best games of the season, posting 23 points and 12 rebounds (including 6 offensive rebounds), but he looked gassed at the end of the game and the Bucks only shot 35 threes, which is tied for the 15th fewest 3s they’ve shot in a game this season.

The Blazers game is the most extreme example of a team falling into the trap and posting their bigs up purely because of the size advantage, yet. Yes, they did win the game, but their game against Houston is the only one in which they had an offensive rating of below 115 (106.8), and they posted a miserable 82.1 PPP in the half-court.

Jusuf Nurkic‘ was so excited about Houston’s lack of size of the paint, that he often just threw up a shot the moment he caught the ball near the basket, resulting in 6-15 FG and arguably his worst game in the bubble yet:

The Blazers were so hell-bent on feeding the bigs and Carmelo Anthony for post-ups, that at times it felt like they forgot they had Damian Lillard as their point guard. Lillard only took 6 shots in the first half and made 1. I’m sure every team playing against the Blazers, small or big, would be glad to finish the first half with Damian Lillard being tied for the 3rd fewest shots taken for the Blazers, especially if double teaming wasn’t even required to get the ultra-efficient Damian Lillard to give up the ball.

Outside of forcing teams to play in a way they’re not accustomed to and limiting 3 point attempts (and %), the Rockets are also very good at forcing turnovers. The best, in fact.

So far in the bubble, the Rockets are 1st in turnovers forced per 100 possessions at 18.5. They’re also 1st in deflections per 100 possessions and in live ball steals, which allows them to get easy buckets at the other end. Robert Covington and James Harden have been incredible in that department, ranking 1st and 2nd in deflections per game, respectfully.

I honestly don’t know if there’s any NBA player out there with better hands than these 2:

Houston’s defense is currently ranked 7th in Orlando, which is much better than the 16th place in which they were ranked when the season stopped, and they’re 3rd in the half-court. So far, small ball has held up well defensively.

3. The Houston Rockets… getting back in transition?.

So I’ve covered the Rockets’ strategy in the half court, but what about transition?

SeasonHalfcourt defense rankTransition defense rankOverall defense rank
2016-20179th26th16th
2017-20186th21st6th
2018-201913th17th17th
2019-20209th22nd14th
First 4 bubble games3rd6th7th
(stats are courtesy of CleaningTheGlass.com)

During the Mike D’antoni era, the Rockets have always been a pretty good defensive team in the half-court, but poor in transition, and a casual look at this season’s stats would tell you the same: 9th in half-court defense, 22nd in transition defense. However, Houston’s transition defense through 4 bubble games has actually been good!

Ranking 6th out of 22 teams in transition points allowed per possession through 4 games isn’t some big accomplishment, but it’s a huge step forward for a team that has never been good at getting back on defense, like Houston.

The Rockets had been vulnerable in transition in the Harden era, and that is largely because of James Harden. I think that at this point, all Rockets fans are aware of Harden’s lazy defensive tendencies.

Having said that, Harden’s transition defense has been much improved in the bubble. Transition defense is almost entirely about effort, and James Harden has stepped up his defense in Orlando so far. I mean, when’s the last time you saw him get a transition block like this one?

Arguably the biggest offender for Houston’s poor transition defense this season had been Harden’s backcourt mate, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook often refused to run back on defense, opting to casually walk back and wait for the play to end. But just like Harden, Westbrook has also improved his defensive effort in the bubble.

Here he runs back on defense to save a layup after Harden turns it over, even though he had already played 40 minutes by that point and everyone else looked tired:

This is not to say that Harden and Westbrook are now great transition defenders- not even close. But simply making the attempt to come back on defense has value over not trying at all, and playing defense is always a team effort.

The rest of the team has also stepped up, especially House, Covington, and Green. Transition defense is rarely the first thing you think about when it comes to overall defense, but it’s the type of thing that can swing important playoffs games in your favor.

4. Danuel House looks ready

When the best player on the team is double-teamed so often, it’s on the role players to punish those doubles, whether it’s by scoring or assisting others, and Danuel House has done a nice job punishing opposing defenses for doubling The Beard.

House has been one of the best role players in the bubble, averaging 16.8 PPG on 46 FG% and 41 3PT% (9.8 attempts per game), for a TS% of 64.2, which is nearly identical to his TS% in the 2018-2019 season.

He is shooting 38.7% on catch and shoot 3s, but perhaps the most impressive part of his scoring is his self-creation. Danuel House is averaging 1 step back 3 per game in the bubble, and those aren’t just like the regular step-backs most role-players use to counter hard closeouts- some of those are legit step-backs out of isolation, James Harden-like.
Take a look at his best off-the-dribble plays from the bubble so far:

It’s highly unlikely the Rockets will call a play for a House isolation in the upcoming post-season, or maybe ever, but it’s good to see that House is capable of isolation play, and could bail the offense out when there’s little time left on the clock.

Danuel House’s defense has taken a step forward as well. He still has his flaws on that end, but his defensive activity and hustle is a sight for sore eyes.

He has put on some muscle, which helps him hold up better in 1v1 play, and is good at double-teaming the post player from behind when the Rockets front:

House looked incredible in the regular season last year before massively underperforming in the playoffs, so the jury’s still out on him being a player the Rockets can consistently rely on, but if he keeps playing like that on both ends on the floor, it’s hard to see him not being a positive contributor for Houston in the postseason.

5. Jeff Green‘s versatility is making an impact

Yes, I know. It’s Jeff Green that we’re talking about here. The guy is known for showing promise and how he can be a difference-maker, and then not living up to the potential.

But he deserves credit for how he’s played so far.

His averages in 14 games played as a Houston Rocket are 11.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG and 1.4 APG on 76.1 2PT%, 40 3PT% (4.6 attempts a game), and 80 FT%, 68 TS% in 21 MPG, which is just ridiculous production for a role player. He has been so good, you’d think the Rockets built this system to maximize him and not Harden & Westbrook.

So how exactly is he having his best season in over a decade?
The answer to that is quite simple: The Rockets’ system has put in the best position to succeed.

He didn’t gain newfound athleticism after getting waived by the Utah Jazz, and he also didn’t develop a new shooting form. he had just never played in a 5 out system, or with a player who gets doubled the moment he crosses half court.

Green has attempted 31 3s in the bubble so far. 18 of them have been from the corner, and the vast majority of those have been completely wide open.

These shots are tough to miss:

This, of course, is connected to the first takeaway in the article. Teams are terrified of James Harden, and the role players don’t have to struggle as much as a result. I don’t expect Jeff Green to shoot 40% from 3 the rest of the way, but with the quality of shots he’s getting, I’d be shocked if his 3 point percentage doesn’t end up in the high 30s.

But the Rockets didn’t sign Green because of his 3 point shooting. Green’s best attribute is finishing under the basket, something he’s done at an elite rate his entire career. He shot 73% in the restricted area last season for the Wizards and is shooting a ridiculous 80% from the restricted area this season, which would rank 2nd amongst all players with at least 2 restricted area shot attempts per game behind Nerlens Noel.

He has been fantastic on the short roll for the Rockets, consistently punishing teams for double-teaming James Harden. Green knows the Rockets are playing 4v3 in a spaced floor after Harden gets doubled, and he uses it to his advantage.

In the first clip here, he slips the screen, which catches the Lakers defense by surprise, and he gets the easy dunk. And in the 2nd one, he fakes out both Quin Cook and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope just enough to get a pathway for the slam, showcasing his still-impressive athleticism:

Ok, so what happens if a defender is in the paint, trying to contest?
Well, often it just does not matter:

And if the defense wants to load up on him, Jeff has proven to be a more-than-capable decision-maker on the short roll, finding shooters and cutters, averaging 3 assists per 36 minutes in bubble play, which would be a career-high:

If I had to demonstrate Jeff Green’s offensive value to the Rockets offense so far in 1 stat, that would be it: In the 137 minutes James Harden and Jeff Green have shared the floor this season, the Houston Rockets have an outrageous offensive rating of 124.3 (and a defensive rating of 102). That is the best offensive rating for any 2-man pairing with at least 130 minutes played this season.

So the offense has been good, but what about the defense? Green’s defense has never been a strength of his, and in a switching-everything scheme, one poor defender can bring the whole team down.

Well, Surprisingly, Green’s defense has actually been above average since getting picked up in February.

According to NBA.COM, Jeff Green has allowed a 0.7 PPP in isolations as a Houston Rocket this season (23 possessions), which ranks in the 84th percentile. The sample is small, but the eye test shows that Green has managed to stay with players on the perimeter as a Rocket, using his size, strength, length, and mobility to make them regret hunting him in the first place.  No stat would demonstrate it better than this footage, in which he locks up Damian Lillard twice in the same game:

There is a good chance that Jeff Green doesn’t sustain this level of play, due to him being Jeff Green. But he can give Houston a different dimension they haven’t had under Mike D’antoni- a forwardig capable of putting the ball on the floor and making good decisions with the basketball, someone they can trust on the short roll. That alone makes him valuable to the Rockets and secures him consistent playing time.

(stats are courtesy of NBA.COM and CleaningTheGlass.com)


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