NEW YORK -- If Mike D'Antoni is sick of explaining himself, he's hiding it well. On Monday at Madison Square Garden, before the Houston Rockets' 10th game with Robert Covington in the lineup and no traditional center in the rotation, the coach fielded question after question about their new look.
In this setting, some coaches are stiff and serious. D'Antoni prefers to joke around. He has already revolutionized the game once and might be doing it again, but, to hear him tell it, all he's doing is the obvious thing. Asked if he would have dared to go this way 10 years ago, he plainly said yes, provided that he had the same personnel.
"We're lucky because we've got an odd team," D'Antoni said. Their guards can defend the post, and Covington can protect the rim. With two of the best attacking players in NBA history, the Rockets would be silly not to space the floor and get out of the way.
"It's the best way for us to play," D'Antoni said. "I think it was pretty evident as we went forward that we weren't going to win the other way. This gives us a heck of a shot, and that's all we can ask for. Whether we win or not, we'll see what happens."
Houston entered its game against the New York Knicks on the heels of a 111-110 overtime victory in a nationally televised game in Boston. It had won six straight, and since Covington's debut it was third in net rating, with double-digit victories against the Lakers, Jazz and Celtics. By the time D'Antoni joked that the opponents posting up James Harden "obviously don't read blogs," the assembled reporters had more than enough material for a straightforward column about the Rockets' so-far-so-good small-ball revolution. All they had to do was dispose of the inept Knicks.
That turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Houston fell behind by 21 points in the second quarter and needed a fourth-quarter rally to make things interesting, only to lose 125-123 to a bottom-five team. The loss not only ruined the easy post-game storyline, it put the spotlight on the Rockets' biggest weakness: defensive rebounding.
New York grabbed 20 offensive boards and scored 21 second-chance points. In the halfcourt, it rebounded 48.7 percent of its own misses, per Cleaning The Glass, an absurd number that has only been topped five times by any team this season. This was an issue in the first minute of the game:
And down the stretch:
And in between:
Twice, the Knicks rebounded their own missed free throw. In fairness to the Rockets, this is the one area in which New York is genuinely elite. The benefit of playing two traditional bigs together all the time is that the Knicks are first in offensive rebounding percentage. The cost of playing zero is that the Rockets, since Covington's arrival, are dead-last in defensive rebounding percentage.
On its own, a loss in New York in March says little about Houston's chances in April, May and June. But what about the way it lost? When Rockets general manager Daryl Morey appeared on FS1's "First Things First" the next morning, the interview followed a discussion about his team in which one panelist suggested that the rebounding differential should make people say, "Huh, this might not work."
"I would say there are certain ways that people just viscerally don't love to lose," Morey said. "They don't love to look smaller and be outrebounded. They don't like to be bested in the post, those kinds of things. But if a team out-transitions you, you take open shots but miss them and lose that way, you guys aren't talking about it today."
Morey didn't use the word "macho," but the implication was clear: small ball makes old-school types uncomfortable, and those people want to see them get bullied by bigger teams. To those who want to smugly quote Pat Riley's "no rebounds, no rings" adage while watching the Rockets, merely seeing the box score from the Knicks game must feel gratifying.
If the New York loss is relevant at all, it is because Houston's road to the Finals will likely go through teams that pose the same problem. The Nuggets are third in offensive rebounding percentage, the Lakers are fourth and the Clippers are sixth. You do not have to have a visceral reaction to the Rockets to note that their poor rebounding is a flaw.
That flaw isn't necessarily fatal, though. The Rockets were a below-average rebounding team with Capela on the court, and lately they've been a terrible one, but they've made up for it by forcing turnovers, preventing 3s and unleashing Russell Westbrook like never before. Covington's presence has unequivocally made them better overall, and it looks like they're better on both ends.
Houston's skeptics can point to Kevon Looney's offensive rebounds in last year's second round as an example of how this particular deficiency could sink its season. Believers, however, can point to the two previous champions: The 2017 Warriors were 27th in defensive rebounding percentage and the 2018 iteration was 29th.
As extreme as Houston's approach seems, there isn't anything novel about betting on spacing and defensive versatility at the expense of height. P.J. Tucker first played center in the 2017-18 preseason, and Draymond Green and the Death Lineup. The Rockets would surely like to rebound better, and, when the margin for error is slim in the playoffs, opponents will surely try to crash the boards. If that's the reason they lose, though, why should that be any less acceptable than losing a more conventional way? Isn't it more admirable to try to maximize the talent you have, doubters be damned?to
And now, Capela's current team
I keep wondering what the perception of the Atlanta Hawks would be if John Collins had never been suspended, Kevin Huerter had never been injured and they had approached last summer a bit differently. After starting the season 8-32, the Hawks are 11-12 in their last 23 games, despite continuing to start two rookies and getting next to nothing from their bench.
If you were excited about Atlanta's future five months ago, you should still be. In 181 minutes spread over 20 games, the lineup everybody was talking about -- Trae Young, Huerter, Cam Reddish, De'Andre Hunter and Collins -- has a plus-7.1 net rating.
Young started in the All-Star Game and dropped 50 points on 12-for-25 shooting in a win against the Miami Heat a few days later. Unlike earlier in the season, though, the Hawks are not just the Trae Show. Look at this pass from Huerter to Collins:
And here's a nutmeg from Huerter that would make Young jealous … from the ground:
The Hawks are not good yet. They just lost by 39 at home against Memphis, and they are still awful defensively. They are fun, though, and I'm becoming cautiously optimistic about pairing Collins and Capela.
February was easily the best month of Collins' career. In 13 games, he averaged 25.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 blocks while shooting 63.6 percent and making 53.5 percent of his 3s. On the season, he is shooting 40.6 percent from deep on 3.6 attempts per game, and he has never looked more comfortable punishing opponents who give him space.
And look at him scoring off the dribble in recent games against Portland and Brooklyn:
Collins had 22 against the Nets in the first half alone, and coach Lloyd Pierce recently said that he thinks this is "the start of something special" for him, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Sarah K. Spencer. On offense, he is at his best as a center because he's quicker than traditional 5s and able to finish over smaller ones. His improved versatility, though, bodes well for his ability to share the court with Capela as a power forward. If they complement each other, watch out: Atlanta still has plenty of financial flexibility, and it could make a massive leap next season merely by fielding a league-average bench.
The forgotten man
This Bulls season has been an outright disaster. They came in with playoff hopes, but they're now 21-40, with the fourth-worst offense in the league. During All-Star Weekend, fans chanted "Fire GarPax" as Zach LaVine tried to answer a question about the front office on ESPN's "First Take." There is no telling what changes might be made in the summer.
On a related note, here is Otto Porter busting the Mavericks' zone on Monday:
Porter returned to the Bulls' lineup against Dallas after missing about four months with a foot injury. He came off the bench to score 18 points in 17 minutes, helping Chicago earn a 109-107 win without LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. (The Mavs were without Kristaps Porzingis.) And, just like with the Hawks, I can't help but think there's an alternate timeilne where this all goes much more smoothly.
In the nine games Porter played before the injury, Porter didn't look like himself. At his best, though, he's an efficient, versatile forward who holds lineups together with his shooting, secondary playmaking and defense. He played some of the best basketball of his career after Chicago acquired him at the trade deadline last year, and the team was counting on him providing similar production this time around. I suspect his injury was much more than a small factor in the season going sideways.
These Bulls have not inspired much optimism, but I'm at least curious to see how they fare down the stretch now that Porter is back. Their defense has actually been decent, and maybe the offense will flow a bit better now.
Another note on Houston
Speaking of players who haven't been themselves for a while, what is up with Eric Gordon? His 50-point explosion on Jan. 27 aside, the 31-year-old Rockets guard has had a rough year. Gordon was sidelined for seven weeks after having knee surgery in November, and, just as he was getting back into the swing of things, he injured his shin. He's back now, but on the season he's shooting just 37.3 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from deep.
In the first quarter on Saturday in Boston, Gordon missed one 3-pointer off the glass and saw another one get nothing but air:
One way to look at this: Houston must have buyer's remorse on Gordon's contract extension, which he signed in September. A more generous view: Imagine how awesome the Rockets will be when he gets it together!
"That's the biggest thing, just getting healthy," D'Antoni said. "And then can he stay on the floor enough to get back into game rhythm and all that? And hopefully he can. I don't know why he couldn't. Knock on wood, he has to be able to avoid getting hurt again. He's just gotta be on the floor."
If you assume that Gordon will not suffer another setback, maybe his struggles represent hidden playoff upside for Houston. Even if he continues to come off the bench behind Danuel House, his combination of range, bowling-ball drives to the basket and sturdy defense could potentially tilt a series in the Rockets' direction. I'd love to see him find his form.
Are you aware of what Seth Curry did in his last two games? Last Friday in Miami, he scored a career-high 37 points on 13-for-15 shooting, including 8-for-9 from deep. Two days later in Minnesota, Curry dropped 27 on 11-for-17 shooting. Here he is carving up the Heat and the Wolves from midrange:
The crazy thing is this isn't some kind of anomaly. Curry is shooting 51 percent from midrange and 58 percent on long 2s, per CTG, and he averaged 18.5 points on 73.1 percent true shooting in February. He is dealing with back tightness now, and given that the Mavs are already missing Jalen Brunson, they really need him to get healthy.