The Houston Rockets no longer have a superstar, but they have an identity. Since Jan. 14, the day they parted ways with the disgruntled guard who had defined the franchise for eight years, they have the best defensive rating in the NBA. The Rockets hound ballhandlers on the perimeter, close down driving lanes and push the ball at every opportunity. In 10 games since trading James Harden, this formula has produced seven wins and an incalculable increase in good vibes.
"We all enjoy playing with each other," John Wall said on Monday, following their sixth straight victory. "Just look at our team now, from what it was at the beginning of the season. When guys make a play, everybody's standing up clapping."
At first, Houston was something between a curiosity and a circus. Now there's no drama, and it has become a different kind of spectacle. Wall is zooming down the court like he did before the bone spurs:
Christian Wood is making a case for an All-Star spot:
It all starts with the defense, though. On Monday, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Mark Daigneault warned his team about Houston's ball pressure, physicality and aggressive approach to switching ball screens, emphasizing the need to play with force and pace and be strong with the ball. The Thunder fell behind by 24 points in the first quarter, committed 17 turnovers and lost 136-106.
In the halfcourt, the Rockets have held opponents to 87.6 points per 100 possessions since the trade, a mark no team has sustained for a full season since 2016-17, per Cleaning The Glass. Their transition defense has gone from abysmal to above-average, and, in the last couple of games, their halfcourt offense has started to come around. "Now it seems like we're pulling together, on the defensive end especially, and creating good offense off defense and moving the ball," coach Stephen Silas said recently. He added that this is what he had envisioned all along.
A month ago, Silas got a glimpse of this. Houston entered its fourth game of the season with the worst defense in the league, and Harden sat out with a sprained ankle. Tied 74-74 at halftime with the Sacramento Kings, the defense didn't look much better. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Silas inserted a wrecking-ball lineup: Gordon, Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Danuel House and Jae'Sean Tate, all of them between 6-foot-3 and 6-6, listed between 215 and 230 pounds.
For all the small ball the Rockets played in the last few years, they never had a five-man unit quite like this. Defensively there is no weak link, no star overtaxed on offense, no one too slow or too slight to hold his ground. There are just five stout wings, playing truly positionless basketball. Faced with all the switching, the Kings' offense broke down completely:
It took almost four minutes for Sacramento to score, and the Rockets went on a 13-2 run. "The adjustment that we made was we played harder," Silas said postgame. "We put more attention to the defensive end. We weren't so reliant on us being a good offensive team." He said he was proud of the way the small lineup fought. He said that they could build on this.
In a way, Silas was right, but it would take a while. The Dallas Mavericks lit them up when Harden returned two days later, and they'd lose four of five games before the trade. That particular lineup didn't see the floor again until Jan. 26 against the Washington Wizards. Silas went to it when they were trailing in the first quarter, and they once again went on a defense-fueled run.
The same thing happened when the lineup reappeared late in the third quarter, and again on Saturday in New Orleans. Here, the Pelicans' Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson are both stonewalled on the same possession:
Silas goes to this group when he wants to "change the game up a little bit with those defensive-minded guys, get our energy up, get up and down the floor and get into our switching," he said. Houston doesn't switch everything for 48 minutes anymore, but he said that doing it for a stretch here and there "just gives the offense something to think about, something different."
In the 15 minutes that the Gordon-Nwaba-Brown-House-Tate unit has played, the Rockets' numbers are hilarious: 132.4 points scored per 100 possessions and 48.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, for a net rating of plus-83.8. The trick, though, is that Houston has played with a similar verve regardless of who is on the floor. Even though the presence of Wood and DeMarcus Cousins has meant that P.J. Tucker has played only 14 percent of his minutes at center this season, per CTG, the Rockets are always playing five-out offense and, crucially, always focused on taking the opponent out of its comfort zone.
It is easy to minimize the Rockets' recent run. They haven't been beating title contenders, and they lost consecutive games to San Antonio, Chicago and Phoenix before they eked out a one-point win in Detroit to start the streak. There might be some luck involved in opponents' terrible 3-point shooting since the trade.
Given where this team was in mid-January, though, being above .500 and eighth in the West is a minor miracle. Wall missed the first five games after the trade and Wood missed the first three games of the streak. Oladipo and Wall have only shared the backcourt four times. Pregame in Oklahoma City, Silas sounded genuinely excited about a different streak: For just the second time this season, Houston started the same five players in three consecutive games.
"We're just trying to find a groove, trying to find chemistry amongst those starting guys," Silas said. "As of right now, we kind of are who we are, and we're going to roll with that just so we can find some continuity in this craziness that we have going on in this season."
Through all the craziness, the Rockets have turned out to be sneaky-deep. Tate has been something of a revelation as a five-position defender and playmaker. Nwaba has wreaked havoc on opposing ball-handlers and put pressure on the paint off the dribble. Sharpshooter Ben McLemore, last year's feel-good story, was out of the rotation before Nwaba sprained his ankle in New Orleans. Undrafted rookie guard Mason Jones was turning into a feel-good story himself before being squeezed out.
Some early-season problems remain. Houston is turning the ball over too much and not protecting the rim well enough. While Wall and Cousins have had some hot shooting nights in the last week and a half, their jump shots have been far from consistent. There will be some off-the-court uncertainty leading up to the March 25 trade deadline, given that Oladipo and Tucker are on expiring contracts. But these Rockets feel totally different. They're committed to Silas' system, They're having fun.
Last Thursday, Houston came back from a 20-point deficit and found itself in a tight game with the Portland Trail Blazers. The Rockets were in the same position against the same team on opening night, and, despite 44 points from Harden, they lost. This time, they got the stops they needed, including some key ones against crunch-time superhero Damian Lillard. Afterward, Silas said they'd been talking a lot about adversity, and they'd played with the energy necessary to overcome it. Wall said they were always going to be a good team, once they had "guys that wanted to be here."