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With in-season tournament resuming, Rockets’ defense appears to be unrelenting

The Rockets finished the last three seasons ranked 27th, 30th and 29th in points allowed per possession. In a related story, nobody in the NBA lost more games over the past three seasons than Houston — a team left floating in space after James Harden’s departure, accruing high lottery picks and accumulating young talent but seemingly operating without any real plan for what to do with all of it.

That sort of aimlessness can only go on for so long … especially when you owe a top-four-protected 2024 first-round draft pick to the Thunder that you’d really rather not see wind up in Oklahoma City’s overflowing coffers. So the Rockets’ decision-makers opted for dramatic change, hired former Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, put Tilman Fertitta’s checkbook to work to the tune of more than a quarter-billion dollars in summertime signings and set about charting a new course — one governed by a pretty simple guiding principle.

“The NBA’s not a secret,” point guard Fred VanVleet — the All-Star and NBA champion the Rockets plucked out of Toronto with a three-year maximum-salaried contract to turn the kids table into grown folks’ business — recently told reporters. “If you play hard, and you play together, and you play the right way, most nights you’ll have a chance to win at the end.”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 12: The Houston Rockets celebrate in the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Toyota Center on November 12, 2023 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
The Houston Rockets seem pretty happy about their defensive effort this season. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Through the first three weeks of the 2023-24 NBA season, the Rockets are checking the first three boxes. In a related story, they’re beginning to check that nettlesome fourth one, too.

After opening the campaign with three losses, Houston has ripped off six straight wins, outscoring opponents by a whopping 20.1 points per 100 possessions during that streak. The Rockets enter Friday’s in-season tournament tilt against the scuffling and shuffling Clippers in fourth place in the West — a rise up the standings that has started with stops.

The Rockets have soared out of the NBA’s defensive basement, ranking third in the league in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass — behind only the Minnesota Timberwolves, led by three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, and the Boston Celtics, who added Jrue Holiday to an elite core of perimeter defenders already featuring Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Derrick White. They blew out the Kings twice, drilled the Lakers, came back late to beat the Pelicans, thanks to some timely hustle …

… and withstood a 36-21-11 triple-double from Nikola Jokić to take down the defending champion Nuggets, prompting head coach Michael Malone to praise Houston as “a different team … they have a new identity, a new culture.”

There are reasons to be skeptical. Houston has played a comparatively soft early slate — 24th in strength of schedule, per Dunks and Threes — and faced Sacramento without De’Aaron Fox; the Lakers without Anthony Davis; the Pelicans without C.J. McCollum, Herb Jones and Trey Murphy; and the Nuggets without Jamal Murray. They might be benefiting from some good fortune in 3-point variance, too; opponents are shooting just 31.9% against them from 3 outside of garbage time thus far, the second-lowest mark in NBA, and a minuscule 24.2% from the corners, comfortably the lowest.

Even with those caveats in place, though, the Rockets appear to have made significant improvements virtually across the board on the defensive end. Houston ranks in the top 10 in opponent field-goal percentage, the share of opponents’ shot attempts that come at the rim and points allowed in the paint, as well as a slew of other categories — a process that begins with focusing on the basics.

When a Rocket shoots, there’s always a teammate rotating back to make sure the floor’s balanced — often VanVleet, arms out wide and forever ready to step up and stop the ball — while everybody else busts it back on defense. No team’s been better at limiting transition chances, forcing opponents to play against their set defense and preventing points on the fast break. When an opponent shoots, Houston players look to put a body on a would-be offensive rebounder; the Rockets lead the league in box-outs per game, one reason why they’re eighth in defensive rebounding rate.

The Rockets actually move — something that sounds simple, I’ll grant! — covering about a half-mile more per game on defense this season than they did last season. And while any major Wooden disciple will tell you that you shouldn’t mistake activity for achievement, that extra activity does show up in better defensive results.

Hustling back in transition means keeping opponents out of easy early offense. Hustling more in the half-court means making it harder for ball-handlers to break you down at the point of attack for straight-line drives and drawing the help that gets you in rotation. Hustling when you are in rotation to make sure you’re closing out means limiting quick catch-and-shoot looks in rhythm.

And every time you cut off one of those pathways to a good scoring chance, you force the opponent to work deeper into the shot clock, where scoring efficiency drops precipitously. Last season, nearly 20% of Houston opponents’ shot attempts came in the first six seconds of the shot clock and only 7.7% of them came in the final four seconds — third-lowest in the NBA. This year? The former is down to 11.2% and the latter is up to 10.8% — highest in the NBA.

The personnel additions have definitely helped. VanVleet, 29, has long been one of the league’s best point-of-attack pests, and his contributions as an offensive tone- and table-setter have paid defensive dividends, too. In 2021-22 and 2022-23, the Rockets finished last in the NBA in both turnover percentage and live-ball turnovers — the cough-ups that don’t go out of bounds and give the opposition a chance to change ends quickly. Through nine games with VanVleet on the handle, Houston is fourth in turnover rate and seventh in live-ball turnovers per 100 possessions — a direct pathway for going from one of the NBA’s worst transition defenses to one of its best — and is giving up 7.3 fewer points per game off turnovers than last season.

Then there’s Dillon Brooks, the perennial pugilist who has rolled his standout performance for Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup into a stellar start to his tenure in Texas. Brooks is shooting 56.3% on 2-pointers and 55.3% beyond the arc while relentlessly guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player — reminding everyone who checked out on him after things fell apart in Memphis that one man’s scapegoat can be another man’s Doberman. Perhaps more importantly, his commitment to never backing down from a challenge — even when you could argue that maybe he should! — has brought a contagious competitiveness to a Houston wing corps that has gotten great contributions from sophomore Jabari Smith Jr., Swiss Army knife Jae’Sean Tate and ball-pressuring backup point guard Aaron Holiday. (Tari Eason, just back from a left leg injury, is a perfect fit in Udoka’s aggressive defense; rookie Amen Thompson, on the shelf with an ankle injury, profiles as one, too.)

As much as their individual skill level as stoppers, VanVleet and Brooks have brought a collective insistence on nailing the mundane aspects of top-shelf NBA defense. Not the blocks (Houston ranks 29th there) and the steals (24th) — the tedium of getting in a stance, spreading your arms out wide, closing out with your hand up and on-balance, and communicating loudly and continuously, so that your teammate knows when to carry a cutter through to the opposite corner or step out on a shooter coming off a pindown.

These Rockets sweat that small stuff; they play the quiet part loud.

Coaches often emphasize the importance of high pick-up points for opposing offenses, of “making them feel us” — of establishing a baseline level of physicality that forces offensive players to play in traffic and reduces the amount of freedom they have to meander around the court, sprint into catches and rise up in rhythm. When there’s a big dude standing in front of you with his arms out, and he’s bumping his chest into you or getting his hand on you as you come off a screen, it forces you to stop and think — to consider where you’re going next, to make conscious choices rather than playing fluidly off instinct.

Possessions can be won and lost in those split-seconds of uncertainty. The Rockets of the last few years too rarely forced them. Udoka — who helped elevate the Celtics to a championship-caliber defense before he was suspended for multiple violations of team policy related to an improper relationship with a staff member — requires them.

Don’t let them just stand out there; go pressure the ball. Don’t let them get downhill; shrink the floor and keep the ball out of the paint. Don’t die on screens; get over the top, get back in front and get your hand up. Don’t let the ball get to the middle of the floor. Don’t let them see only one body without help loaded up in the gap. Don’t let them make a move to the basket without multiple sets of feet in the paint. Don’t give rollers or cutters a free path to the basket without tagging them. Don’t let them get comfortable — ever.

The institution of these sorts of principles, and the unwavering commitment to them, creates a context in which the formerly flailing young Rockets can buy in and apply their gifts to the less glamorous end of the floor. It’s how you get Jalen Green fighting over screens to stay connected for rear-window contests — opponents are shooting 41.4% when he’s on them thus far this season, best mark of his career — and even blowing up sets and turning a pick-and-roll into a pick 6.

It’s how you get Alperen Şengün sliding his feet on the perimeter, jumping out to contain ball-handlers before rotating back to the paint and averaging a career-high 2.8 deflections per game. And when you can get Şengün — still not an imposing rim protector, but much more comfortable playing up-to-touch near the level of screens in the pick-and-roll — playing serviceable defense, you get to enjoy the spoils of his offense, which are friggin’ estimable:

The 21-year-old Şengün is averaging 19.4 points and six assists per game — numbers no other big man has ever cracked this young. He’s shooting 65.1% on 2-pointers, flipping in flamingo set shots and shot-put floaters and establishing himself as one of the most dominant post players in the league; according to Synergy Sports tracking, among players who’ve finished at least 20 plays on the block, only Kristaps Porziņģis is averaging more points per possession there than Şengün (1.31, shooting 70.8% on those plays).

There are only seven players in the league this season using more than 20% of their team’s offensive possessions, dishing assists on at least 30% of their teammates’ baskets and posting a true shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw averages) over 60% — Luka Dončić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyrese Haliburton, LeBron James and two dudes to whom Şengün frequently draws comparisons (and both of whom he just beat): Domantas Sabonis and Jokić, who just delivered the verdict that “it is a good thing that they are playing a little bit more through [Şengün]. I think that is going to benefit the whole organization.”

So, too, will the defensive adjustments and improvements, provided the Rockets can keep them up. Plenty of teams struggle with the small stuff that they’re nailing; teams as young as Houston’s been the past few seasons have virtually no shot of taking away scoring windows, of dictating terms to an offense. But with Udoka demanding that level of attention to detail from the sidelines, and with vets like VanVleet, Brooks, Jock Landale and Jeff Green leading by example with their execution on the court, the Rockets now have that chance. So far, they’re taking advantage of it.

“We play how we play every game,” Şengün told reporters after beating Denver to extend the winning streak to six games. “We fight. We [play] good defense. Good fight every time, and that brings the win all the time.”