Despite Harden brilliance, Rockets’ recent success is on defense

The Rockets beat the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in a thrilling overtime game, 135-134, to continue their incredible hot streak. James Harden was typically excellent, putting up another 40-point triple-double to carry the team, hitting clutch 3s in regulation and overtime and providing the win.

But last night’s game was a story of what has been both right and wrong with the Rockets this season. The thing about James Harden’s brilliance is that it is constant; it is unyielding; it is expected. While he’s gone supernova recently, Harden was leading the league in scoring at typically high efficiency even before this barrage. While the Rockets’ offense has dipped a bit this year, the team’s true early-season problems lay on the other end of the floor. After being a top-10 defensive unit last year, the Rockets started this year as one of the worst defenses in the NBA.

The sustainability in the Rockets’ recent winning ways is going to come from the stout defense they’ve deployed during this streak. On December 13th, this team started to turn the defense around. That was the day of the Lakers matchup, in which Harden scored 50 and posterized JaVale McGee, and has averaged 40 points per game ever since, while the Rockets have gone 10-1.

But Harden is always going to fill up the box score. Long-term success is going to lie elsewhere. Starting with that Lakers game and in the 10 games since, the Rockets have had a defensive rating of 107.8. That’s a top-10 defense in the NBA during that span, and over a full season would be the 11th-best defense in the league. Considering that the Rockets were a bottom-5 defense to start the season, this could portend a return to last season’s form.

Note: the below numbers come from the streak before last night’s win over Golden State.

Rockets Team Defense

 RatingNBA Rank
First 26 Games112.327th
Last 10 Games108.79th

The other marked improvement over this span has been in defensive rebounding. Until that Lakers game, the Rockets were the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the league after being top-5 in the NBA last year. While they haven’t quite returned to elite-status, they’ve been an average team over the last ten games – and at the very least, cutting down on those extra possessions is going to help. To again use last year’s excellence as a comparison point, the Rockets’ top-5 defensive rebounding last year indicates there is still room for improvement.

Rockets Team Defensive Rebounding

 PercentageNBA Rank
First 26 Games68.3%29th
Last 10 Games73.8%14th

While a lot of these are unquantifiable team-based indicators, perhaps the focal point should be Clint Capela. He’s been a monster on the glass of late, with three games at 19 or more rebounds, and has averaged almost 15 rebounds per game in the last ten. This bears out in advanced metrics: before the last ten games, his total rebound percentage sat under 20%; since then, he’s at 23.4%. After being a net +/- negative over the first 26 games, he’s climbed back into the positive area with his recent play. His defensive rating has fallen as well. While defensive rating can be more indicative of team success than individual performance, Capela is undeniably the defensive anchor of the Rockets and perhaps the single person most responsible for team success.

Clint Capela Defense

 RatingDefensive Rebound %
First 26 games111.321%
Last 10 Games108.827.8%

This could go on and on diving into more and more esoteric numbers – the point is that the Rockets have shown marked improvement across the board in some of the biggest problem areas that plagued them to start the season. Last night was a tale on both ends. The Rockets’ defensive rating was terrible at 121.8, but their second half was a big improvement over the first. Clint Capela was a beast, and did most of his damage in the second half. They rebounded above their season-average rate, but not to the standards they probably need to in order to sustain success. If the Rockets can continue rebounding better, and if the Rockets can continue defending better, and if Clint Capela has returned to form, this team can continue its run. Even if Harden’s offensive brilliance regresses from this current historic run to merely standard Hardenesque, it’ll be on defense and on the glass that the Rockets will have to prove themselves to make a deep playoff run.

All stats in this post pulled from NBA.com.

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