The Houston Rockets have undergone several transformations with James Harden as their centerpiece over the last eight years, but one thing has remained constant: they'll always have a good offense. Harden is so obscenely talented that you or I, dear reader, could probably engineer a top-10 offense around him, much less what happens when an offensive guru like Mike D'Antoni is thrown into the mix. Yet due to a combination of bad luck and poor play, the Rockets have never managed to earn a chance at the end goal of an NBA championship.
This year was more of the same for a while. Houston's offense was excellent with Harden and now Russell Westbrook helping run the show, but they were average defensively. Then Daryl Morey decided to put all his chips in the pot and traded Clint Capela to shift Houston to a roster with no true center or rim protector. The early returns were about as expected. Houston was killed on the boards but put up absurd offensive numbers, and their defensive effectiveness varied on a night-to-night basis depending on what kind of opponent they were facing and how checked in the Rockets were on that end of the floor.
Fast forward to the bubble, where Houston is up 2-0 on the Oklahoma City Thunder with Game 3 to be played on Saturday afternoon despite Russell Westbrook's absence with a quad injury. What has stood out has not been their offense, although Harden was excellent in Game 1 and all of Houston's role players stepped up in Game 2 with Harden shooting poorly. No, what has been great to watch about the Rockets in the playoffs so far is their defense-- and they know as well as we do that's what will propel them to a championship run.
Thanks to the sheer volume of threes Houston puts up, they can keep up with anybody in the playoff field on the scoreboard. Their two biggest obstacles to a Finals appearance, the Lakers and the Clippers, are not built to put up numbers in the same way D'Antoni's Rockets are. But the Clippers have two of the very best wing scorers in the league (not to mention a great bench unit) and the Lakers have Anthony Davis and LeBron James. The worry going into the playoffs was not if Houston could produce points, but rather if they could be just good enough on the other end to make it count.
Against the Thunder, they've done just that. Houston switches everything-- and I mean everything-- on defense. This means no offense, regardless of who's on the floor, can create space with a simple pick-and-roll action, which means no drive-and-kick, which means Houston doesn't give up many open threes when they're locked in. They're very small out there, sure, but trying to post up Harden or P.J. Tucker is already a win in their book. Not only are most of their defenders pretty solid in the post despite giving up half a foot and 30 pounds in most matchups, a post-up is inherently less valuable than an open three. Steven Adams posting up obviously is not the same as Anthony Davis doing so, but the net result remains the same-- no easy shots.
When Houston's defense is operating at peak capacity and everyone is moving on a string, they're very active in the passing lanes, too. The Rockets have forced 25 turnovers against the Thunder so far this series, a feat even more impressive when you consider Chris Paul is running the show for OKC. It's difficult to maintain that kind of defensive intensity over 48 minutes, but Houston has done so and knows they'll need to continue to do so if a Finals appearance is in their future.
Their biggest challenges are still ahead of them. But the bubble is the best chance for this small ball experiment to work. If the Rockets can keep it up on that end of the floor and get even better on offense with Westbrook back in the fold, they're a serious threat to upend the strange experience of the 2020 NBA Playoffs.