So maybe size doesn’t matter after all?
Or maybe what the Houston Rockets are showing us is having the right size is what matters.
Ten games into this “small ball” approach Mike D’Antoni has employed, the analytics say they are actually a better team than they were with 6’10” center Clint Capela in the lineup. After beating the Knicks on Monday, the Rockets have won 8 of the 10 games and think they’ve found something in this new look.
“We have a strange team,” is how D’Antoni put it. “It’s a weird team.”
In the first 47 games of the season, Houston had an Offensive Rating of 114.4 and Effective Field Goal percentage of 53.7%. Over the last 10 games, the ORtg has improved to 116.9 and eFG is 55.1%.
The biggest issue with playing small, of course, is not as much on offense as it is on defense, especially against teams with big front lines. You’d think all you need to do is get a mismatch in the post and exploit it. But D’Antoni says his starting five, with the 6’8” Robert Covington as the tallest player, can handle it.
“James [Harden] is good at guarding the post and so is Eric Gordon,” he said. “Everybody we have can guard the post.”
Russell Westbrook is scrappy and quick. Danuel House Jr. and PJ Tucker are capable post defenders. They may no longer have a traditional rim protector with Capela now gone (he was traded to the Hawks), but Covington has enough length to be a disruptor around the basket. Tucker plays with physicality.
And since the Rockets are all about numbers, those also back up D’Antoni’s claim that the Rockets can survive defensively with a lineup of 6’8” and under players. In the first 47 games this season, Houston’s Defensive Rating was 110.5. Over the last 10 games of small-ball, the DRtg was 110.5.
The issue is rebounding. Over the last 10 games, the Rockets are being outrebounded by an average of 11 boards a game.
But this type of lineup fits perfectly with Harden’s soloist act. D’Antoni made his name as an NBA coach with the Phoenix Suns and a Seven Seconds or Less attack that saw a lot of pick-and-roll plays to create matchup nightmares in a two-man game with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. The Suns surrounded the two with shooters to space the floor.
That was the plan in Houston, with Harden and Capela, but what D’Antoni saw was Harden performed better with less traffic around him. He may be the best one-on-one player in the NBA, with a bag of tricks that not only fool defenders, but referees, too. So when you remove the screener, you have a floor of shooters spread out to the point where not a single Rockets player sets up inside the three-point line.
What is a defense to do with that? The Jazz found themselves sending 7-footer Rudy Gobert out to guard Westbrook. Even as a Defensive Player of the Year, that’s a tough task.
The Rockets lead the NBA with 44.1 three-point attempts per game. They’re last in the league with 46.7 shots from inside the arc. Since the move to small ball, they’re actually averaging more attempts from three (47.8) than two (42.7).
Harden leads the NBA in isolation scoring, so it’s no surprise that the Rockets lead the NBA with almost 20% of their offense (19.8%) coming off iso plays. They’re second in the NBA in scoring (118.9 points per game) playing this way, so it’s tough to argue against it.
What matters most, of course, is will it work come playoff time?
Bradley Beal wasn’t named an all-star this year. Instead, he’s become a sympathetic figure as the star on a bad team.
Make no mistake, at 26 years old, he’s coming into his own as a legit star in this league. Beal, who is averaging 30.1 points per game this season, just did something the NBA hasn’t seen anyone do since the great Kobe Bryant.
On Sunday in Chicago, Beal scored 53 points in a loss to the Bulls. The next night, home against the Bucks, he put up 55 points in an overtime loss to the Bucks.
It was the first time a player has scored 50+ points on consecutive nights since Kobe had 60 and 50, respectively, on back to back nights in Memphis and New Orleans in March 2007. That run ended a streak of four straight games of 50 points or more by Bryant.
“Didn’t know that,” Beal said in reference to matching a feat by Kobe on the same day a memorial service was held at Staples Center to celebrate the life of Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, who perished in a helicopter crash.
“That’s who Kobe was,” Beal said. “That was his drive.”
The difference was that Bryant’s Lakers won those back-to-back games. In fact, they won all four of those games he went for 50 or more. Beal’s Wizards dropped two to fall 4 ½ games back of the Magic for the 8th playoff spot in the East.
The fact that the Wizards, who remain without John Wall for another year, are even in contention for a playoff spot speaks volumes to what Beal has been able to do this season. Despite the frustrating loss in Chicago, the Wizards gave the top-seeded Bucks a challenge and had a chance to win at the end of regulation.
But instead of taking the shot, Beal passed it to rookie Rui Hachimura, who had his last-second attempt blocked to force overtime.
Back-to-back 50-point games have happened several times in NBA history, but to do it on consecutive nights is a rare feat. In fact, before Kobe, you have to go back 23 years to find another.
That was Bernard King, who scored 50 points for the Knicks against the Spurs on Jan. 31, 1984 and then put up another 50 the next night, Feb. 1, 1984, in Dallas. The Knicks won both of those games.
Speaking of Kobe Bryant, as we mentioned, on Monday there was a public memorial service held at a jam-packed Staples Center. Several former and current NBA players attended, including Harden, Westbrook and Tucker, who flew back to Houston in time for the game against the Knicks that night. Members of the Lakers and Clippers were also present but one face was conspicuously missing.
He was asked on Tuesday if he attended the memorial `and his reply was vague.
“I respect your question,” he told a reporter in Los Angeles. “But it’s very emotional, a very emotional day. A tough day for myself, for my family, for everyone involved.”
LeBron was asked a few more times to confirm whether or not he was at Staples for the service and he politely sidestepped each question and changed the subject to express admiration for Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, and the address she gave at the memorial. His agent, Rich Paul, told ESPN that LeBron was “in his own space” but also would not give confirmation.
Here’s where the conversation needs to end. Does it really matter? We all grieve in our own way. LeBron’s presence at the service doesn’t need to be a story, nor should it be.