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Friday, February 27, 2009
The Houston Rockets Beat the Odds


Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

In an interview with Jason Friedman published yesterday at Rockets.com, Daryl Morey says unequivocally of LeBron James:

Yes, he's the best player in the league – by a good margin, I think. If you had first pick in the all-free agent NBA draft, you'd take LeBron James. I get that question a lot, too, so I figured I'd answer that as well.

He's unbelievable. We have two of the best perimeter defenders in the league and it is going to be extremely difficult for both. They're going to give it their all but, more than anyone, he's a tough guard. There's a reason the [Michael Lewis] article is about Kobe, not LeBron (laughs).

Morey's lighthearted response almost suggests that there isn't enough good data in the world that can construct a coherent strategy for guarding LeBron James.  Kobe Bryant?  Irrepressible some nights, sure, but still a guy you can prepare for with certain pieces of information that can be assembled into a defensive strategy. If you execute that plan perfectly, you have a chance. 

But what about LeBron James?  

I put the question to John Krolik of Cavs the Blog on Thursday afternoon.  Knowing that the Rockets -- and most specifically Shane Battier -- devise their defensive strategy based on what they've found in the scorer's offensive tendencies, what should we expect to see from Battier and, to the extent that he uses this information, Ron Artest? John responded: 

...control where LeBron's getting his catches.  What you want him doing is going ISO or Pick-and-Roll 30 feet from the hoop so you can double him up high and have room to rotate back without giving up an easy basket. He's going to hurt you when he does that, but it's not nearly as bad as when he's catching it at the elbow and you're freeing up a good scorer to go double or if you let him catch it on the move, which is when you're just screwed. Cleveland fans are all familiar with something called "LeISO" -- you want as much of that happening as possible.

On the perimeter, try to make him shoot jumpers. It's different with LeBron than it is with Kobe -- LeBron doesn't have set moves or spots he's going to hurt you from on the perimeter. This makes sense in a way because when you shoot 72% at the basket and take 40% of your shots there, it doesn't make sense to be planning out a perimeter game. And don't try to stop penetration, but try to channel his penetration towards where the help is, because his hot zones show how stymied he gets when he meets the second defender. What you want is LeBron out of sync -- he's intensely improvisational and prone to streaks, and when he hits a wall he doesn't have that solid 15-footer or easy move to go back to, and he can end up ineffective that way.

There are data to compliment this scouting report.  LeBron's struggles from long-range are no secret: James is a .313 shooter from beyond the arc, and he's not all that potent on two-point jumpers either -- just .379.  Where he's lethal is from inside, where he shoots .715.  On the drive, well, pick your poison.  He's measurably better driving to his right, but still devastating going to the rack any which way. 

So how do the Rockets hold LeBron James Thursday night to a mortal 21 points on 7-21 shooting from the field and only six free throw attempts?  Is it Shane Battier's savvy preparation and scouting?  Ron Artest's defensive aggressiveness?  

Let's take a look.

Ron Artest
Rick Adelman chooses Artest to be LeBron James' primary defender.  Artest's defensive strategy on LeBron is apparent from the outset of the game -- run under any and all perimeter screens, yielding LeBron anything he wants from the outside. 

At the 11:25 mark of the first quarter, James gets the ball in the backcourt, 35 feet from the rim.  Artest gives him 10 feet of space.  Ben Wallace steps out for a pass from LeBron, who then rubs Artest off Wallace to get some space.  Rather than struggle over the screen, Artest is more than happy to run under Wallace and give LeBron the jumper from 23 feet.  The shot falls through, but somewhere in the building Sam Hinkie is very pleased -- the outcome wasn't great, but the probabilities are in the Rockets' favor.  This is the only shot James hits in five first quarter attempts. 

Artest uniformly abides by this strategy all night.  When the Cavs run the same set (with Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the respective screeners) on the right side at the 9:24 and 5:55 marks of the first, again Artest runs underneath, leaving LeBron with a pair of 23-footers, both of which he misses.  Even when the screener is Daniel Gibson (2nd quarter, 5:59 mark), whom Artest can plow through at will, James is generously ceded the shot.   

James heats up a little in the second quarter from the outside when he drains a couple of three-pointers within a minute of one another to pull Cleveland within five points with 3:01 remaining in the first half.  The first make is indistinguishable from the previous misses.  The second bucket looks a little different because James draws Luis Scola on the switch about 25 feet from the rim on the right wing.  You figure this might be the perfect opportunity for LeBron to work off the dribble for his first inside bucket of the night.  Instead, James steps back and sinks the three.  Whether it's Yao's presence beneath the basket or LeBron feels he's heating up from the outside, he's demonstrating no desire to get to the rim.  Artest continues to give LeBron shots from long distance. The next trip down, he runs underneath an Anderson Varejao screen, giving James another three-point attempt -- this one no good.  

James is able to pick up steam as the roll man with 1:38 left before halftime.  As the ballhandler, Delonte West guides Aaron Brooks into James. Artest commits to West, assuming a switch.  West dribbles away from the screen along the arc.  Problem is, Brooks stays on West.  When West recognizes this, he delivers a bounce pass to LeBron between Artest and Brooks.  James uses Artest's momentum on the recovery against him, getting Artest off-balance, which gives LeBron a clear driving lane to the basket.  Yao challenges him at the restricted circle, but James' body control is so freakishly sound that he's able to elevate, absorb the bump, and still reach over Yao's right shoulder to drop the ball through the hoop.  This is his most decisive sequence of the first half.  The Cavs go to this set three more times before halftime at the exact same spot up top on the right side, but each time West keeps the ball and takes the shots. He nails the first two of three attempts.  

Watching James and Artest battle in isolation is far more entertaining.  The first isolation set comes three and a half minutes into the game just beyond the left elbow.  True to the data, Artest plays James' right shoulder, goading him left. Yao is 20 feet away beneath the basket, but watching James every bit as intently as Artest.  The instant James makes his first hard dribble with his left, Yao slides across the baseline.  He meets James at the rim and denies him the left-handed layup.  

LeBron never earnestly tri
es to establish a post game against Artest, but he gives it a whirl twice toward the end of the game.  At the 5:15 mark of the fourth quarter, James gets the ball against Artest in the mid-right post, back to the basket.  Artest holds his ground and absorbs blows in the post as well as anyone, and that's what he does here.  Unable to make any progress against Artest, but having drawn Luis Scola away from Wally Szczerbiak in the left corner, James kick the ball out to Szczerbiak, whose three-point attempt is no good. 

The second post-up comes at the 4:30 mark, with Houston leading 82-68.  LeBron doesn't deliberate.  He unleashes a baseline spin move before Artest can hunker down, but Yao is there to cut off his path to the basket.  LeBron's acrobatic attempt -- his last of the night -- is swatted away by Yao. 

Shane Battier
Battier gets his first look at LeBron with 4:41 to play in the first quarter when he inherits James on the switch off a West screen.  Battier locks in on LeBron, keeping his feet bouncy.  He doesn't play James as closely as Artest does.  It's clear that Battier has a line of demarcation, and that boundary is the paint. Battier is quite willing to allow James to pick up his dribble, step back, and take a contested jumper with a hand in his face from anywhere outside the paint, if he so chooses.  James doesn't want to settle.  He lowers his left shoulder and drives right, with Battier moving laterally in front of him from the elbow to the low block along the paint.  James draws contact from Battier at the baseline, flings a shot at the basket, and earns a trip to the line.  Battier is floored by the call. 

We see another display of Battier's defensive game plan with 5:05 remaining in the second quarter.  The play is a mirror image of the previous one, only on the left side: Battier inherits James on the switch. Again, Battier plays a couple steps off LeBron –- guarding space more than he's guarding the man.  Battier will be perfectly happy with any shot James takes outside the paint. (If you go here, you'll see why.)  All James can muster is a contested leaning jumper as he falls away. 

With all the attention James is getting from the Rockets, the weak side glass is left to Varejao.  He secures the rebound and James gets another shot against Battier -- this time barely off the mid-left post.  Battier shades James left, giving him more room to move baseline (Yao watches attentively from there).  As if it's a scene lifted from the Lewis piece, Battier sets himself defensively at a spot about a step toward the baseline just as James revs up for his move.  When James propels his right shoulder forward, Battier is already there. Violet Palmer calls the charge.  

Battier's next possession against James comes on the first possession of the second half.  James is able to lead Battier into a down screen from Mo Williams.  The separation frees LeBron to take a dribble-handoff from Ben Wallace at the top of the circle.  Even though an 18-foot jumper can be fairly described as a relatively low-percentage shot for James, there's probably a little too much space for James for the Rockets' staff to chart this as a positive possession.  Battier is late to close, and the shot falls.

We also see the value of having a couple of defenders like Artest and Battier on the floor working together.  Remember that West/LeBron pick-and-roll the Cavs employ on four consecutive trips at the end of the first half?  They try it again at the 3:15 mark of the third quarter.  The difference here is that Battier is now on West, which enables the Rockets to switch without any complication.  When LeBron gets the pass from West, he never puts down a dribble against Battier.  Instead, James steps back and fires a short 23-foot jump shot that barely grazes the rim.  

LeBron's only transition bucket comes on his final field goal of the night, with 5:35 left in the third quarter when beats Battier in the open floor.  Battier is backpedaling, playing LeBron to go right. With a pretty hesitation, step-around move,  LeBron moves the ball from his right to his left, takes a giant stride forward up and away from Battier, changes hands again, then lays it up and in.  

The contrasts between Artest and Battier are obvious, but still interesting to observe.  Artest plays his man, while Battier plays the floor.  Though Artest might be considered the less cerebral of Houston's tandem of shutdown wing defenders, he's every bit as methodical and disciplined.  

The Help
In his email, Krolik wrote, "If you leave a defender on an island in that situation, game over.  Really, it's the help defender who's going to have to do most of the heavy lifting."  But James doesn't test Hoston's help defenders on Thursday night, opting instead for a flurry of long jumpers.  But there are a few contributions from the Rockets' supporting cast.  

At the 8:05 mark of the first period, Houston shows LeBron a slightly different look on the high screen-roll. Before Ilgauskas sets his screen, Luis Scola blitzes LeBron in the backcourt, chasing him another few feet away from the hoop which, if you're the defense, is the direction you want LeBron to be moving.  Scola's pressure doesn't come without risk. On the roll, Ilgauskas gets himself some open space about 20 feet off the right elbow. LeBron finds him there, but Ilgauskas misses the shot.  He's about 38% from this spot, though it sure feels like Ilgauskas has made a living off that shot.  

In addition to blocking James' last shot attempt of the night, Yao demonstrates some quality help defense at the 8:05 mark of the third quarter.  He draws James on the switch just below the right elbow.  Not unlike Battier, Yao seems to be defending the area around the basket as much as he's defending James.  With the middle clogged, James elects to step back and fire an off-balanced fade-away jumper from about 12 feet, which doesn't look good.  

One of the problems Cleveland has is that Ben Wallace (before he leaves with a broken leg) and, to a lesser extent, Anderson Varejao aren't potent enough offensive players to pull Yao away from the basket.  This makes life a little tougher for LeBron James.  At the 6:05 mark of the third, we get an illustration.  It's one of the few times LeBron is able to get the ball in motion against the Houston defense.  He swings around a down screen from Ilgauskas on the left side.  LeBron is able to get some separation from Artest, and glide into the lane with some serious momentum, but there's a lot of help waiting for him in the lane -- Yao most prominently.  LeBron is forced to pass out to Varejao.  

How good is Houston's Defense?
Judging from the way they stymied LeBron James and what we've seen generally on their six-game homestand, pretty tough. They'll pose problems for just about everyone, but especially halfcourt-oriented offenses like Portland and Cleveland.  As if weren't enough to station two of the league's best individual defenders on the wings, there's a 7-6 tree guarding the basket, something that's especially tough to deal with if you don't have a big who can lure him away.  Scola does solid work in the post and though he's not the quickest player on the court, he always seems to know where he's most useful on a defensive rotation.  On the ball, Aaron Brooks is adequate and Kyle Lowry's pressure is nasty.

How do you beat them?  I'll go with Henry.  Get out and run -- even if it's not what you do, and even if it's not in your nature.  The Rockets aren't the most athletic group, but they are methodical.  The best way to combat methodology and logic?  Introduce some chaos into the mix.