The Rockets have not been brilliant this season and have under-performed in terms of meeting pre-season expectations. Before the season, it was expected that the Rockets would be towards the top of the conference instead of scrabbling around in the chasing pack. Houston had made a huge move before the start of the season in the acquisition of Russell Westbrook and it required a lot of games to get Westbrook acclimatised to the Rockets’ system. Moreover, Harden has been really streaky this season which has led to the Rockets losing easy games against lottery teams.
The Rockets were not on a championship track until after the trade deadline, the Rockets took the bold decision to trade Clint Capela in a four team trade which resulted in Houston receiving Robert Covington. Daryl Morey came to the conclusion that the Rockets played better in small-ball lineups and Capela was not an effective use of the cap, a quality two-way wing would be much more valuable for the Rockets. The trade unlocked Russell Westbrook’s full capabilities, he was able to get to the rim at all times which brought his scoring average and efficiency up. The lack of a big man in the usual rotation is a huge gamble on the part of Morey, he is betting on the Rockets being able to produce strongly on offence and fight hard on defence. It has not been as much of an issue than has been expected, The defence has not completely bottomed out, the defensive rating has only dropped by two points despite not having a rim protector on the floor.
Lack of Size
As I have established above, the Rockets lack size in their regular rotation. Houston only has two players on the roster who can play centre (Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein), neither has played many minutes this season. Mike D’Antoni will stick to his rotation in which there are no players above 6’7, this can be a good opportunity for the Thunder to exploit providing that the big man can stay on the floor. Steven Adams is much taller and stronger than Robert Covington or PJ Tucker, he will simply be able to shoot over the top if he can get a post touch. This scoring option will always be available for the Thunder if Adams is able to stay on the floor defensively.
Houston play with pace and they play five-out basketball with PJ Tucker sitting in the corner for a three-point look. The five-out system can be a nightmare for a more traditional big like Steven Adams. Adams is fairly mobile but he will struggle to defend on the perimeter for the entirety of the game, he does not have the lateral speed to cover a guard or wing. Houston have made life living hell for centres by putting Russell Westbrook at the centre spot on offence. The decision made by D’Antoni forces a big to defend one of the fastest players in the league, any little mis-step will be punished by Westbrook accelerating past the defence for an easy layup. From a scheme stand-point, it creates a mismatch on offence while also reducing the opposing team’s rim protection. It is hard for a big to defend the rim while he is twenty feet away covering a perimeter player.
There are issues when it comes to hunting for post looks and the Thunder need to be mindful of these risks. Creating a post look requires an entry pass and the Rockets are pretty good at picking off these passes. Robert Covington and PJ Tucker are both lengthy, disruptive defenders who are capable at poking away the pass before the big man can secure the ball. Tucker is particularly adept at creating deflections and stealing the ball away. One of the first games that the Rockets played after the deadline with Tucker at centre was against the Lakers, a team which looks to feed the big man and runs a lot of offence through the post. Los Angeles kept on going inside to Davis and the Rockets were always able to knock the ball away which created turnovers for Houston capitalise on.
The Rockets’ lack of size and defensive activity creates a bear trap which is sprung when the opposing team tries to work in the post. The players on the opposing team look to exploit the match-up which deviates from their usual style of play. The deviation can create issues, the team is not comfortable playing this way which can lead to turnovers that the Rockets can exploit. Oklahoma City cannot get drawn into running an offence where they solely try to work down low, the Thunder will be punished in that event. It is crucial for OKC to play their game and not force anything.
The other issue that the Rockets present is whether the Thunder should size match. It is a tough decision for Coach Donovan, Oklahoma City can try and use their size as an advantage on the offensive but it may lead to leakages on defence. Donovan has a few alternatives that he could pursue. Billy could choose to lean into the Thunder’s size and deploy a large unit with Gallinari playing small forward, Muscala at the four and Adams at centre. The Thunder would secure all rebounds and look to maximise offensive rebounding using their size. The aim would be to prevent Houston from getting the ball at all. This lineup would create some issues on defence, none of front-court members have strong mobility so dealing with an offence that likes to create mismatches will be difficult.
The alternative would be going small and playing without a traditional centre. Oklahoma City have had much success this season with smaller lineups, one of the most efficient five-man units in the league is reliant on Schroder, Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander. It is something that Oklahoma City have become comfortable with and I think that the Thunder would be confident about winning the match-up against Houston’s small lineup. OKC stretch defences out by using three guards, putting a wing at centre only makes the offence more aggressive as it creates additional space inside to work. The Thunder have actually tested using a wing at centre, they did so when Adams and Nerlens Noel were both ruled out of a game due to injury. Mike Muscala started at the five but Deonte Burton played solid minutes as a small ball centre. I would not trust Burton in a play-off series, he is much too erratic but Luguentz Dort could feasibly slide into that spot.
Dort’s build and length make him an interesting selection for the position. He is built like a fire hydrant and does not get moved off his spot which is valuable when a guard like Westbrook tries to post him up. Moreover, Dort has the quickness to defend on the perimeter ably, there is no need to worry about whether he cover the necessary ground on defence. His physicals are interesting but so are his technical abilities. Luguentz Dort is not the same quality of play-maker that ‘The Three Amigos’ are but he understands the correct pass to make and how to find his team-mates for good looks. He is a solid play-maker and the presence of a fourth player who can make a play with the ball will test defences even further. Oklahoma City would be able to put five players on the floor who can make a play from the perimeter, there are few teams who game plan to stop multiple play-making opportunities.
James Harden is a player who thrives in isolation basketball and is one of the best scorers that the league has ever seen in these plays. Harden’s unique bag of tricks provides him with the means to get points on every possession, the step-back is a vaunted aspect of his arsenal but Harden is exceptional going downhill. Harden’s finishing at the rim and play-making is overlooked due to the step-back dependency. James Harden is a crafty passer out of the pick and roll and his court vision allows him to dissect a defence. All of these factors mean that Harden is a nightmare to guard throughout a game, his heavy usage means that a defender does not get possessions to rest and reset. Stopping Harden is difficult but there is an aspect of Harden’s scoring that the Thunder can control.
James Harden lives at the line due to his ability to draw fouls consistently. Harden’s foul drawing is divisive to say the least, some people appreciate Harden’s ability to work the rules to his advantage, some people hate watching James Harden bait defenders into fouls. Regardless of personal perception, James Harden’s foul drawing is ingenious, he creates contact with the opposing team and contorts his body to act out the foul. More often than not, a referee will fall for Harden’s acting and call a foul on the defender. In the play-offs, the game is more physical and the referees tend to call less fouls but Oklahoma City should not give Harden a reason to create contact.
Terrance Ferguson displayed a good way to defend Harden the last time that the Thunder played the Houston Rockets. Ferguson tucked his arms inside and took away any appendage that James Harden could use to create contact. Ferguson’s choice to defend using his chest and lower body worked effectively, Harden could not get his easy offence at the line. Oklahoma City need to play this way against Harden in the play-offs, it will slow him down and put more pressure on Harden to make shots from the floor.
Dealing with Harden’s passing ability is more difficult to diagram, his court vision finds passing angles that are almost unstoppable. Mike D’Antoni understands Harden’s abilities completely and puts him in actions where these abilities can be maximised. A common staple of Mike D’Antoni’s offence is isolating Harden at the top of the key with every other player spaced out. Harden’s scoring threat draws so much defensive attention, especially his ability to volume shoot from deep on good efficiency. The term ‘gravity’ is usually applied to Stephen Curry but it can also be applied to James Harden, Harden will draw two defenders on most possessions which creates open looks for this team-mates.
Doubling Harden does not work for a whole game, the Rockets can swing the ball to Westbrook and let Russell attack a disrupted defence. It is also difficult to play Harden solely man to man due to Harden’s ability to score in whatever way possible. Luguentz Dort might work really well on the perimeter but Harden’s size is difficult to stop inside for a smaller defender. Slowing down James Harden will require a variety of coverages of defence, Oklahoma City need to be able to switch seamlessly between doubles, blitz and shading. This will require a high level of communication between all three guards, this is something that Billy Donovan needs to focus on in film sessions. The primary defender must shade Harden towards a help defender when possible, the Thunder players must position themselves to cut off passing angles when blitzing. Cycling through coverages makes the defence unpredictable and it forces Harden to think through his decisions rather than just playing instinctively. OKC need to create uncertainty within James Harden’s mind, that uncertainty will lead to Harden trusting his shot rather than creating for others.
Make Westbrook Shoot
Russell Westbrook is a player that is well-known to many Thunder fans. Westbrook played for the Thunder for over ten years, that is over ten years’ worth of film in which Russell’s strengths and weaknesses were evident. Moreover, Westbrook’s weaknesses have been exploited in the play-offs and the 2019 NBA Play-offs provide a good solution to slowing down Russell. The Portland Trailblazers were a fairly even match-up for the Thunder but Terry Stotts managed to swing the series in the Blazers’ favour by making Westbrook inefficient from the field. The Blazers’ defensive scheme on Westbrook always dropped the big man back towards the rim and encouraged Russell to shoot the mid-range jumper, an inefficient shot for him. That schematic decision broke the Thunder’s offence, Oklahoma City could not work as an efficient offence which ultimately resulted in a first round bounce.
OKC can try to do something similar against the Rockets, the Thunder will not be able to match the scheme entirely due to the Rockets having two perimeter bigs that need to respected but it is possible to take away inside looks for Westbrook. The issue with defending Westbrook in a Rockets’ system is that there is so much space inside of the arc for Westbrook to work. It is one of the reasons why Russell’s mid-range jumper has recovered by a few percentage points this season. Even still, Oklahoma City would prefer Westbrook to take jumpers instead of getting to the whole. The Thunder will not be able to stick at a centre in the paint to protect the rim but Oklahoma City can use both of the corner defenders to help onto the painted area.
The player who defends the corner three usually stations themselves between the rim and the corner, the player puts themselves in a position to defend either shot type. When Westbrook gets into the lane, the wing defender needs to shade towards the rim and away from the corner. The slight movement is designed to dissuade Westbrook from going for a layup, an efficient look for him. This decision will not result in a total offensive breakdown, Russell can still pull up from mid or dish to the corner but the scheme makes the offence more difficult.
Another one of Westbrook’s weaknesses is that he can be destabilised mentally. It is common knowledge that Russell Westbrook is easy to needle and the emotions start to take over his game. I have seen Westbrook thinking emotionally rather than thinking clearly, he played with a personal vendetta against Ricky Rubio and accumulated stupid fouls. He lost focus on the team game and focused much more on his personal rivalry with the opposing guard. This has happened in three consecutive years. Patrick Beverley used his personal animus against Westbrook, Westbrook was more focused on dominating Beverley than winning. Rubio was obviously able to rile Westbrook but so was Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook wanted to beat Lillard at his own game rather than just playing in rhythm.
Oklahoma City want Russell Westbrook to be emotional, the quality of Russell’s play drastically declines when he is not laser-focused on winning the game. A Westbrook who is thinking clearly is one of the most skilled point guards who I have seen play the game, you do not want that guy facing off against your team in a play-off series. Luckily for Oklahoma City, there is a player on the roster who is very good at needling the other team. Chris Paul is very good at mental warfare, he understands how to create instability in the minds of opposing point guards.