Article written by Shaun Shaikh (@sports_shaun)
Every time you open a box score, my guess is that your eyes automatically go to the numbers you think will tell the story of the game — for most, that’s 3P%, turnovers, Harden’s points, etc.
Most people stop there, but I typically end up going much deeper in the rabbit hole of nba.com/stats, cleaningtheglass.com, basketballreference.com, etc.
Each series, there are some litmus tests that I follow to see how the team is doing and should be predictive of whether or not they can win.
Against the Lakers, I have the following:
- Offensive rebounds versus turnovers battle
- The Lakers half court volume and efficiency
- What defense are they playing Harden and how does the team respond? (man, zone, trap, etc.)?
- Harden’s off-court minutes
- Anthony Davis post-ups and isolations
Offensive Rebounds Vs. Turnovers
Since going to small ball, this has been the stat most commonly used to determine the success of the Rockets defense. It makes sense — the Rockets are giving up size and should give up rebounding over time. However, what they lose in size, they make up for with the ability to play another highly active defender who can play in passing lanes and create havoc.
Realistically, it is more of a comparison of second chance points off offensive rebounds versus points scored off turnovers.
In the Rockets/Thunder series, the Rockets ultimately won this battle 6 out of 7 times, netting a +24 point advantage in the decisive and close Game 7 where Harden really struggled offensively.
So, how have they looked so far this series?
Basically, in line with what you’d expect. When we won the match-up in Game 1, we won. When we lost the match-up in Game 2, we lost.
Turnovers have been driving the number moreso than offensive rebounding, contrary to the media narrative around small-ball.
The Lakers Half Court Volume and Efficiency
Did you know that the Lakers were one of the worst teams in the NBA in half-court efficiency? According to Cleaning The Glass, the Lakers scored 0.94 points per play in the half court, making them in the 19th of all teams in the NBA (the Rockets were 7th).
So what do they owe their strong offense to? They were the best team in the league in transition in efficiency and top 5 in creating transition opportunities.
On the flip side of the coin, the Rockets actually had a good half-court defense this year in the regular season, holding teams to 0.93 points per play, good enough for 8th in the NBA. They did suffer in transition, allowing a high level of transition and allowing teams to convert at a high rate — bottom 10 in the NBA in both numbers.
My feeling was that IF the Rockets can protect the ball and force the Lakers to play in the half court, their defense will look very good. If the Rockets let the Lakers get out and run, it will look very bad.
Game 1 looked very good, Game 2 looked very bad.
In both games, we let the Lakers get out in transition a high percentage of the time, (90th+ percentile among all games), however in Game 1 we locked up the Lakers in the half-court. Surprisingly, in Game 2 the Lakers did not capitalize at the same rate in transition as they typically do, but the volume was incredibly high.
Getting the turnovers back down to the single digits will do wonders for the Rockets defense.
What defense are they playing Harden and how do the Rockets respond?
Game 2 was notable on this front, because the Lakers employed a real game plan to deal with James Harden as opposed to the inexplicable mess they tried in Game 1.
The Lakers trapped Harden a lot in Game 2, sometimes early at half-court, sometimes off the PnR, sometimes on the drive. They kept changing looks to not let Harden get comfortable.
I tracked every play in the game and noted which defensive strategy they employed on Harden. My numbers may not be perfect, but I think it is good enough to tell the story of how well the Lakers did defending Harden.
My takeaway? James Harden got sufficiently wet against any defense the Lakers threw at him.
Harden’s On-Court/Off-Court Metrics
See my breakdown from earlier today on my previous blog post, which I felt merited it’s own discussion.
Anthony Davis Post-Ups and Isolations
A common refrain among people following this series is how the Rockets have no answer defensively for Anthony Davis.
It makes sense — Davis is a tall human, where the Rockets have none. Davis gives up nothing defensively when the Rockets go small and theoretically can punish the Rockets on the other end for being small, a rare trait for big men in the NBA.
However, I have found myself skeptical that Davis would punish the Rockets in the way people expected.
P.J. Tucker has defended Davis better than any other defender in the NBA this season, as shared by Tom Haberstroh:
Davis often gets lulled into taking many long mid-range shots at low efficiency. Russell Westbrook gets slander for being the worst high volume jump shooter in the NBA, but look who’s second according to this post by Kirk Goldsberry. (For what it’s worth, Jimmy Butler is worse than both.)
So, how has it gone?
Davis has scored 25 points on 34 points on high efficiency, so it seems to have gone pretty well for him, but how has he gotten there? Mostly through feasting in the mid-range.
As we discussed above, Davis is one of the lowest efficiency jump shooters in the league. I think the Rockets will live with those shots. In the regular season, he was a 45% shooter from 10-14 ft. and 31% from 15-19 ft.
The Game 2 loss was demoralizing in a lot of ways, but by simply protecting the ball better it appears the Rockets can turn this series back around and win.
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