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Playoff Preview Part 1: A Look at the Rockets

Today we begin to break down the playoff series between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers.  We're going to start by looking in-depth at the opponent.  Tomorrow we'll look at what the Blazers might do to counter the Rockets and also at peripheral factors.

The best way to describe the Rockets is "big, powerful, and matchup-oriented".  They prefer to break the game down into a series of advantages, forcing your players to face counterparts they can't handle physically.

Nowhere is this more true than defense.  The Rockets are a brutally efficient team. 

Yao Ming provides an anchor in the middle of the lane.  He's not what you'd call a premier defender but he's huge, dwarfing even Greg Oden, and he takes up space.  He usually only has to take a step or two to rotate into a play.  His reach and intimidation factor keep you from moving the ball or your feet around him.  His mediocre footspeed doesn't hurt their defense proportionately because they don't want him far from the rim anyway.

Playing alongside Yao in the frontcourt you'll find a battery of strong forwards:  Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes.  Their job is to bully anyone who thinks about driving around Yao and to rebound missed shots.  Houston has the fourth-highest defensive rebounding percentage in the league.  They make you miss and don't give you any opportunity to atone.  They're also 10th in points in the paint allowed.

Sadly enough, for opponents anyway, big-man play is not even their greatest defensive strength.  That would be Ron Artest and Shane Battier.  Tracy McGrady's injuries have put both in the starting lineup and each is a bona-fide lock-down defender.  Artest is HUGE as well as athletic.  When his head is in the game he's the best defensive small forward (perhaps now a shooting guard with McGrady out) in the game.  He will stay in front of you, bruise you, and get in your head.  Battier is the classic team defender.  He's smart, quick, and commits on the defensive end.  Together they make sure opposing scorers either stay outside or only come in on angles the big men can take care of.  Unlike many NBA defenders they don't need to use their hands to do it either.  Their feet and bodies can channel and/or bump you into a trajectory where you're going to get swallowed up.

Point guard may be the weak point defensively for the Rockets, as young Aaron Brooks is far more adept at the offensive end.  He's quick but slight, neither a natural nor practiced defender.  Kyle Lowry, Brooks' back-up, has a little more body to him and can handle himself defensively.

Put all together, the Rockets end up as the 4th most efficient defensive team in the league, ranking 5th in opponent field goal percentage overall.  Combined with their rebounding strength, that makes solving them a tall order.

Houston does not depend on turnovers or blocked shots to key their defense.  They're inexorable, not opportunistic.  They can sometimes be beaten by a running game.  Mobility and commitment aren't universal strong points among their roster.  Presumably the latter will not be an issue in the playoffs but the former may be.

While the Rockets rank only 11th in the league in three-point percentage allowed, this is not a (comparative) indictment of their perimeter defense.  Alongside that near-average number stands their 4th-place standing in three-pointers attempted against and made against.  Part of this is pace (19th in the league).  But part of it is them closing on shooters so as to prevent the deep shot from coming up in the first place.  When they are active the perimeter defenders play the inside-outside game as well as anyone.

One of the biggest stats in the Rockets' favor is their 2nd-place mark in opponent free throws attempted and allowed.  With opponents saddled with a paucity of three-pointers already, the lack of extra scoring opportunities at the line hurts.

Houston tends to play the same type of cards on offense.  They're not a particularly fluid team, nor are they invested in sharing the ball.  Rather they concentrate on a few overpowering matchups and depend on the rest of their players to be excellent outlet options or excellent clean-up men.

Yao Ming is the Rockets' prime offensive player.  He scores almost 20 per game and hits near 55%.  Everything the Rockets do best offensively keys off of him.  They depend on his size and touch to make him a relatively unstoppable force.  When he's camped on that left block he can spin into the lane or shoot the turn-around from where he stands.  If you're more than an inch off he'll just bull by you instead and you won't have the leverage to alter his course.  Often this results in the double team, over which he can clearly see.  Once you are committed the other Rockets come into play.

Unsurprisingly the long-ball is one of the prime weapons in Houston's arsenal.  They're 10th in the league percentage-wise from distance, 6th in attempts, 7th in makes.  Dealing with Yao is going to leave somebody open and Artest, Battier, reserve guard Von Wafer, reserve Brent Barry, and Brooks can all hit them.

Once you get tired of Yao, Ron Artest can create a proportionally nasty matchup headache against most defenders.  He's adept in the post and facing up.  He takes the most shot attempts of anybody on the team.

Brooks is one of those players who becomes unstoppable when he's on a roll.  His footspeed and crafty cutting are hard to match.  He'll miss often, but when the streak's running hot he can go for 20+.

Houston's power forwards mop up after everybody.  Scola is their biggest offensive and offensive rebounding threat at that position.  His contributions on offense are measured but often provide that final "Why me?" push that breaks the opponent's back.

The biggest strength of Houston's complementary corps is their ability to affect the game without demanding the ball or shots.  Scola and Battier are good examples.  They let the game flow through the bigger names and are ready to come in from the wing and provide the finishing touches.

Nevertheless if you can get the Rockets out of their offensive comfort zone they do run into trouble.  Their lesser players are not particularly versatile.  When the big names aren't producing this offense can really stagnate.  As a team Houston is 22nd in the league in field goal percentage, 21st in free throws attempted, and despite being excellent free throw shooters, only manage to creep up to 17th in free throws made. 

Houston is not nearly as good of an offensive rebounding team as they are on the defensive end.

The Rockets do not run, scoring the fewest fast break points in the league this year.  They're in the middle of the pack in turnovers.

Overall Houston ranks 16th in offensive efficiency.

Houston has had two problems this year that they have yet to solve entirely, three if you count the McGrady injury.  Obviously a 53-win team doesn't have many fatal flaws, but if something is going to go wrong it will likely be in this vein:

1.  At times Houston checks out mentally.  Yao in particular has games lacking in aggressiveness.  He doesn't use his size to get inside or get rebounds.  He moves slower than normal.  He gets pushed around.  Artest is also famously prone to lapses.  You can generally tell when this is happening to the Rockets as it will evidence itself on defense and in defensive rebounding first.  All of a sudden the ball starts getting reversed or gets inside via the pass and Houston doesn't shut it down.  Opponents are blasting through for energy offensive rebounds.  Fast breaks often follow.  The Rockets are always in danger when the opponent tops 100.  When the defense stops working so does the team.

2.  Houston doesn't have great contingency plans.  They affect each other but they have trouble lifting each other up.  The bench doesn't have a lot of pop, individually or collectively.  Foul trouble, fatigue, and off-nights are the bane of this team.  If one of their key matchups isn't working they struggle to stay afloat.

The Blazers are going to be hard-pressed to deal with Yao Ming and Ron Artest offensively, with Artest and Shane Battier defensively, and with the Rockets' defensive rebounding in general.  Houston creates some particularly uncomfortable matchups for Portland.  We've seen Artest alone nullify some of the Blazers' individual strengths and exacerbate their weaknesses.  Some of the Blazers' best players--Roy, Fernandez, Batum, Outlaw--sit right at the fat part of Houston's defensive range.  The areas where Houston could be weaker defensively are also the areas in which the Blazers are weaker, or at least less consistent, offensively.

If the Rockets come to play every game and don't get swept up in the excitement this will be a difficult test for Portland's young squad.

Tomorrow:  What the Blazers can do to overcome the Rockets.  Plus advantages that favor one team or the other and critical things in the balance.

Learn more about the Rockets at TheDreamShake.

--Dave (