When We See Houston's Defense, What Do We See?


David Thorpe and I have been talking all kinds of playoffs, and one thing that really stands out to him -- and me, as a Blazer fan -- is how well the Rockets play defense.

Portland had the NBA's second most efficient offense in the regular season. But they have been way back in the middle of the pack in the playoffs.

(In the regular season, Portland scored 110.7 points per 100 possessions, and Houston scored 105.4. In the playoffs, it's perfectly flipped: Houston has scored 110.7 points per 100 possessions, and Portland has scored 105.4. Check it out quickly, before all the numbers change.)

Shane Battier, Brandon RoyHouston has a lot going for it. Yao Ming, you may have noticed, is enormous and committed to defense. On top of that, with Tracy McGrady out, the Rockets basically always have at least one, if not two or three elite stoppers on the floor; Shane Battier, Ron Artest, and Chuck Hayes all fit that bill.

Every Rocket demonstrates tremendous commitment to defense -- the kind few teams ever get to demonstrate.

As a result, there simply are not easy shots anywhere close to the basket to be had. Other than Cleveland, I'm not sure anyone is playing better team defense in these playoffs.

But here's the thing: Tom Thibodeau and Kevin Garnett brought this kind of performance to Boston. When you see all of those Celtics acting in concert with one another, and that assistant coach on the sidelines screaming instructions at them, you can see that this is a story of a player and a coach coming together in a special way.

What's that story like in Houston? How is it this team came to be such a special defensive unit?

The truth is, I don't know. But here are three common theories:

  • Rick Adelman is a serious NBA coach. Although he has not been known, historically, for his defense, people evolve. (Or, maybe his teams were just underappreciated at that end of the floor.) UPDATE: Houston GM Daryl Morey e-mails: "I do hope we are having an impact but one factor you should mention is Rick had five top five defenses prior to encountering the geeks as you call it (Por 90, Por 91, Por 92, Por 93 and Sac 03). As you somewhat point out, Rick has always been underrated in this area." The irony of my not knowing this ... I loved those Portland Adelman teams like no other I have known.

  • Elston Turner is the assistant coach who is most commonly credited with focusing on the team's defense. Maybe he's bringing the magic -- although he has long been part of Adelman's staff, including in Sacramento.

  • The Ron Artest factor. That's a big strong dude who can make some things happen at the boring end of the floor. The only problem with this theory is that the Rockets were similarly excellent at the defensive end of the floor last season, before he arrived.

  • Time together. It's underrated, I suspect. A lot of good defensive teams have played together for some time. By now Shane Battier has a good idea how to work with Yao Ming, you know?

  • UPDATE: Another great call, from TrueHoop reader Sachiv: Of course most of these Rockets played for Thibodeau himself, under Jeff Van Gundy.

In addition to all of the above, I'll add one more idea to the mix: Maybe it's the geeks.

Houston famously has the NBA's biggest team of analysts. They are working hard on all kinds of stuff, from player acquisition to end-of-quarter strategy.

But in the best glimpse we have ever had into the work of Daryl Morey's nerd squad, we see the vast majority of analysis serving one purpose: Preparing a Rocket defender to play informed defense.

It makes sense that information would be especially useful at that end of the floor.

An essential part of basketball is that the team with the ball has information that the defense does not: Where the ball is going. New kinds of analysis can even out that equation just a little.

A really basic version could be like this: If a post player catching the ball on the left block makes 60% of his shots turning over his left shoulder, and 40% turning over his right one, an informed defender can steer him accordingly.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. I don't know if it's likely, but it's conceivable that the Rocket players know things about Portland's offensive tendencies that the Blazers don't know. Maybe some Portland players have moves, or shooting spots, that they think are solid -- but that the Rockets know fail most of the time.

It would make perfect sense that the playoffs would bring this out. Stat geeks who work for NBA teams are frank that one of their biggest challenges is even getting their information into the minds of busy players and coaches. But in the playoffs, the analysts would have time to really dig deep into one opponent, and the players and coaching staff would presumably have the time and desire to hear what the stat geeks have to say.

So, when we see Portland's efficient offense struggling night after night, credit the players, certainly. Credit the coaches. But maybe save just a little bit of credit, un-sexy though it may be, for the guys with the laptops.

(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)