The Houston Rockets are intentionally contrarian. Their roster exists to defy age-old basketball idioms about what does and does not lead to high-level winning. Size, history says, wins championships, and jump-shooting teams, Charles Barkley says, do not. Recent events have largely disproven both ideas, but where most purists draw the line with Houston is its apparent dissent from the holiest of basketball cliches: "Defense wins championships."
That one, to an extent, has largely held firm. Every champion this century has had a top-10 defense with only two exceptions, both of whom, the 2001 Lakers and 2018 Warriors, were defending champions coasting through the regular season. The Rockets are 16th in defense overall and 15th since committing to playing center-less basketball at the trade deadline. Hardly elite numbers, but better than had been suspected since going small. After all, even in the 3-point revolution we are currently living through, the best defenses tend to be the ones that protect the rim. Among the 10 teams that allow the fewest shots within three feet of the basket, seven are ranked in the top 10 in points allowed per possession. The Milwaukee Bucks have the best defense in the NBA by a mile, and unsurprisingly, they allow by far the fewest percentage of shots at the rim in basketball and the lowest field goal percentage on those shots in basketball.
The Rockets faced the Bucks on Sunday, and Milwaukee put its rim-centric approach to basketball on display. The Rockets scored 20 points in the paint. The Bucks scored 60, many of which came largely because there just weren't any other tall people hanging around the basket to do anything about it.
Every marker of successful size-based play favored the Bucks. They outscored Houston in the paint by 40. They grabbed 29 more rebounds. Their field goal percentage was over nine points higher. Yet the Rockets won the game. The easy explanation would just be to point to Houston's 21 3-pointers and assume the Rockets won entirely on offense. There's a shred of truth to that. The Rockets have the NBA's second-best offense, and shooting was the primary driver behind dumping their centers in the first place. Offense will always be their catalyst. But Sunday's win wasn't quite that simple.
Houston held Milwaukee below its typical offensive output in the victory. The Bucks score 112.2 points per 100 possessions in an average game, the seventh-best figure in basketball. The Rockets held them to 109.4, which would fall between No. 17 Indiana and No. 18 Philadelphia. Again, the temptation would be to suggest that was all a matter of bad shooting luck. The Bucks went 9 for 35 from behind the arc. But if that were the case, you would expect Milwaukee's percentage on open looks to be dramatically lower than usual. The Bucks generate the most wide-open 3-point attempts per game in the NBA, 21.3 per game on average, per NBA.com. They make 36.4 percent of them. They made 35.3 percent against Houston ... but generated only 17 attempts. That's the same number 10th-place Sacramento normally creates. The sample is incredibly small, but other teams with star big men have run into the Rockets and seen the same slip. The Lakers (Anthony Davis) and Jazz (Rudy Gobert) dipped, and the Rockets won both games. Dallas just barely topped its average on Friday, but needed overtime to do so.
So here we have a defense that looks bad on paper and seems like it should be bad based on our anecdotal understanding that big men drive great defense, yet when they've encountered teams designed to exploit their own lack of size, their defense actually contributes to winning. The explanation is as counterintuitive as the result. The Rockets have mastered the art of bad defense.
It started in earnest during the 2018 Western Conference finals. The Rockets switched every screen, and as a result, Kevin Durant was free to seek out the matchup of his choice in isolation. Usually, that was the smallest player on the floor, often Chris Paul. Intuitively, Paul defending Durant is a bad thing. Durant is a foot taller than him. He can shoot over him whenever he wants. That is a mismatch, and that is precisely the point. The Rockets tempted Durant with all of the seemingly open mid-range jumpers over shorter defenders that he could ever want. And he took them. Many of them went in. Many, by virtue of the inherently inefficient nature of the shot, did not.
The Rockets very nearly defeated the unbeatable Warriors this way. The goal was to take away the 3-pointers that made them special. Forget about just giving up mid-range jumpers. The Rockets so blatantly made them available that it took the Warriors out of their game plan. How could they pass up such clean looks? It must be bad defense.
But very few teams have a scorer like Durant willing to take those shots, so the Rockets sought out a more universal target: the post-up. Post-ups are inherently inefficient shots. Philadelphia, by far the most frequent post-up team in basketball, scores only one point per possession on those plays. Take those same big men and let them finish pick-and-rolls and you get much more consistent scoring. Only the Hornets score fewer than a point per possession when their roller finishes a play. As a result, most teams avoid the play out of principle. The 76ers average 12.7 per game. No other team averages even nine. The Bucks average 7.9 per game. Against the Rockets on Sunday, they posted up 20 times. Instinctually, what is Brook Lopez supposed to do when he encounters P.J. Tucker, seven inches and 40 pounds smaller than him, close to the basket?
Anthony Davis fell victim to the same scam. As a big man, his eyes light up when he's matched up on the block against a smaller defender. He has spent his entire life being told that it is bad for a defense when that happens. He made plenty of those looks. But their inherent inefficiency meant he wasn't going to make enough of them.
Not all of the looks are going to directly be post-ups, of course. But broadly, the Rockets trust that even a mismatched defender like Tucker or Robert Covington will hold their own enough inside to tilt the numbers in their favor. Davis, for instance, shot 14 of 21 in that game against them, but the Lakers were outscored by four points in his minutes on the floor. Stalling the game to such a crawl saps shooters of rhythm. It limits off-ball movement. It allows the Rockets to control the terms of engagement, and in a one-on-one battle, they're going to win most of the time.
Broadly, they got the same result out of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yes, he got whatever he wanted inside, but in going 14 of 25, he missed enough times to only outscore the Rockets by one during his minutes.
The Rockets surrender these mismatches on purpose. They genuinely don't care if teams outscore them in the paint because those extra shots there come at the expense of the 3-pointers Houston knows are more valuable mathematically. The idea of switching screens, when done properly, is that it takes away open shots. You might not have the person you want defending the shooter on the ball, but you will have someone there. Here's a simple example: If James Harden had tried to fight through this screen while Tucker had ducked to defend a Giannis roll, Wesley Matthews would have had an open look. Instead, Tucker realizes what's happening, makes the switch and gets a hand in Matthews' face.
With proper communication, defenses can stalk shooters all across the court. Brook Lopez finds himself in virtually every significant spot on the floor on this possession before taking this corner 3-pointer, but three Rockets trade off duties defending him and ultimately get the stop.
It's the fundamental idea that shapes their entire identity as a franchise: Three is a bigger number than two. It's obvious offensively, where they lead the league in 3-point attempts every year. It's taking shape now defensively as well. The numbers don't fully reflect it yet. When switching goes wrong, it goes about as wrong as any defense can go. A miscommunication on who is supposed to guard who leads to someone being unguarded. Too many of those, and you wind up allowing 149 points to the Mavericks.
But get it right, and you get a performance that somewhat resembles what the Rockets did against the Bucks: a night in which Milwaukee struggled to find open looks from behind the arc because the Rockets switched so effectively. Having the pieces to do so unlocks the other tenet of Houston's defense. What is lost in rim protection when size is sacrificed for speed is made up for in turnovers.
The Rockets forced 22 turnovers on Sunday. The majority of them were steals created by their quick hands. Houston stripped Milwaukee ball-handlers 15 times.
The Rockets are so fast, athletic, and in spots, smart defensively that they almost generate turnovers by accident. Covington isn't even looking at the ball on this steal. He's just moving quickly and keeping his arms up.
Steals aren't the be-all and end-all of defense, but they feed into Houston's overarching premise. This kind of defense enhances their offense. Transition shots tend to be the most efficient shots in basketball, and Houston takes advantage fully by layering even more efficient looks on top of that. Five of the 21 3-pointers Houston made on Sunday came in transition; two directly off of steals.
There's risk inherent in playing for these turnovers, but Houston's athleticism mitigates that. A tactic the Rockets found plenty of success with against Milwaukee involved sending a double into the post against the big men they're begging to shoot in an effort to force more turnovers. Doing so leaves the corner shooter open, but everyone in Houston's rotation is athletic enough to scramble back into place if necessary.
It all feeds into the same core philosophy. There are benefits to being bad defensively if you're bad in the right ways. The Rockets use their defense to further their mathematical agenda. They goad teams into taking free points so they can prevent them from scoring in the ways they perceive as valuable. They take risks to try to force turnovers that create those valuable shots for themselves.
Is it sustainable across four seven-game series? That's unknowable at this point. This excellent performance came on the heels of a terrible one. Consistency has been a problem for Houston defensively all season. Defending bigger players in the post that often is likely exhausting for Tucker, Covington and Harden. There is no telling what seven games against Davis or Antetokounmpo would do to them physically. There's no telling what strategic adjustments those teams will make across a series. When analytics go out the window in crunch time, these mismatches become more dangerous.
But the Rockets have spent years defying basketball norms. If anyone was going to find a way around typical championship defensive standards, it was always going to be them. They may not have the seemingly requisite top-10 unit, but Houston has found a way to fold its defense into its identity in ways that may not make it championship favorites, but at least enhance the advantages the Rockets already had in ways that keep them in the conversation, elite overall numbers or not.