Insights from a close watch of Clippers at Rockets

Previously, I broke down film from the Bucks and Lakers game at the Staples Center. Now, I want to talk about what I saw from the March 5th game between the Clippers and Rockets.

Overall, this was a game Houston will want to forget. The Rockets were down 30 points midway through the 4th quarter partially due to 3 of 37 3-point shooting up to that point; they wound up cutting the final margin to 15 points in garbage time. Shooting can run hot and cold and every team throws up a clunker like this occasionally. Going beyond the score though, I think there are interesting things in the tape to break down for each side.

Rockets’ Transition Defense

Houston’s transition defense was just plain bad in this game. Look at this play:

Harden misses the layup and there are four Rockets at the level of the rim. Two shooters are in the corners and Westbrook tries and fails to secure the offensive rebound. With only Covington back on defense, Houston is vulnerable to the quick transition look. The Clippers actively sought out transition opportunities like this throughout the game, particularly on Houston drives and corner 3-point attempts.

Sometimes, the Rockets’ issue was poor floor spacing. Other times, it was more of a hustle problem. Here Westbrook jogs back after a missed corner 3-pointer and the Clippers once again push the ball, this time into a 4 on 2.

The poor transition defense wasn’t just a feature of this one game. Houston gave up the second highest proportion of opponent transition looks in the NBA this season, behind only the Cavaliers, per Synergy data on NBA.com. I think their deficiencies in this area invite their opponents to look to push the ball and seek out more transition looks, creating a kind of negative cascading effect.

On the positive side, I think this is a weakness that the Rockets could fix at least somewhat with more emphasis from the coaching staff and practice. They need to make sure that there are players rotating back on defense when a shot goes up and all players need to sprint back and become part of the play.

Westbrook, Positives and Negatives

Russell Westbrook is a fascinating player who tends to leave an imprint on any game he plays in with his next-level athleticism. Exactly how much of a positive imprint can vary, and maximizing his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses is of prime importance to the Rockets.

Consider these back-to-back Houston offensive possessions in the 2nd quarter:

On the first play, Reggie Jackson smartly helps off of Westbrook onto the roll man on the Harden drive. Harden makes the obvious pass to the open shooter in the strong side corner, but unfortunately for Houston that shooter is Westbrook. The Rockets’ offense generates a lot of 3-pointers off of the attention Harden’s drives cause, but Westbrook simply is not the right person to capitalize; he shot just 25.4% on about 200 attempts this season.

But then on the very next play we get a pure display of a Westbrook strength.

I had to re-watch this a few times because Westbrook makes this feat of athleticism look so effortless. He picks the ball up in transition at around the 3-point line, takes two steps to a little bit inside the free throw line, and then almost glides to the basket. Few players are this dangerous attacking the rim, particularly in transition.

Westbrook was very aggressive in this game overall. I particularly noticed this early in the third quarter when it seemed that nearly every possession turned into a Russ mission to get to the basket. Here he spins right by Paul George, a very strong defender, and finishes over Zubac.

Westbrook finished this game with 29 points on 27 field goal attempts and 11 free throw attempts, so he posted mediocre efficiency but high volume. He is one of those players for which I find it hard to appropriately weight all the positives and negatives. I think this is where an all-in-one number like ESPN’s RPM, while by no means the be-all, end-all, gives us some insights. Russ is currently 10th best on the season in RPM, which suggests he has had a very positive impact. Slightly tempering this data point though is the fact that his traditional box score numbers are very impressive; I am not quite sure how big an effect this has on boosting his “box-score prior” portion of RPM.

Zubac, And A Mixture Of Good Clippers’ Offense And Poor Rockets’ Defense

Ivica Zubac was 4-4 on 2-point field goal attempts in the 2nd quarter and each make is illustrative of something.

The first make is a jump hook shot in the post over Austin Rivers. I think Houston can live with Zubac taking this shot, especially if he settles for this rather than attacking the basket more aggressively.

The second Zubac make comes off of well-designed play from Los Angeles.

Zubac slips a pick and rolls and runs to the basket. Paul George smartly screens off any potential help that Harden could give down low. Kawhi makes the appropriate read and, though Eric Gordon hustles to try and get back in the play, there is not enough time.

In the third play, George does a nice job beating P.J. Tucker off of the dribble, Covington steps up to help at the rim, and George slips the ball off nicely to Zubac for the dunk. Here we see another negative for Westbrook in his defensive effort/recognition; he is caught watching the ball and doesn’t help down onto Zubac when Covington steps up.

Finally, the last Zubac make comes off of a miscommunication from Houston where P.J. Tucker thinks someone else is covering Zubac when he dives to the rim off of a slipped screen. It’s just bad defense from Houston. In general, I think the Rockets potentially have less margin for error without a traditional big man guarding the basket. Their communication needs to be crisp.

More Notes

Here are a few other things I thought were notable:

  • Kawhi Leonard has improved so many parts of his game since he was drafted, and his dribbling handle is one of them. I mean, look at the crossovers he executes here against P.J. Tucker before driving past him for the dunk.
  • Some Houston offensive possessions are an interesting game of disguising who will set the eventual ball screen for Harden. The Clippers try to suss this out so they can properly set up their defense. Consider this possession where Covington eventually comes up, slips the screen, and then nicely cuts for a layup (unfortunately the video only starts at the ball screen).
  • Harrell’s presence on offense down low was noticeable for the Clippers late in the 3rd quarter. I think the Rockets’ defense has an interesting dilemma of how much they should double when the opposition gets the ball in the post. This of course depends on the quality of the opposing post scorer; some post-ups the Rockets would be very happy to concede.
  • The Rockets seemed to like getting Marcus Morris switched onto Harden and then attacking him in isolation, particularly in the 1st quarter. Overall this was not an effective game for Harden; he scored 16 points on 17 field goal attempts and 11 free throw attempts

Of course, this is only one game and Houston’s aforementioned poor 3-point shooting performance had a large effect on the final score. Also, the Rockets have had some success against the Clippers this season, including beating them in 2 of the 3 games before this one. This would be an intriguing battle if the two squads matched up again in the postseason in Orlando.

 

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