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Houston’s defending the corner?

The corner three is a declaration of power. Teams that shoot (and make) a bunch tend to be good at offense, and teams cognizant of the opposition’s desire to fire away tend to be good at defense. Tend to be.

An open layup or dunk will always be the number one option for an offense and the number one priority for the defense, because the object of the game is to put the ball in the basket and the closer to the hoop you are the easier it’ll be. (Did you know uncontested layups are easy? Crazy but true.)

But while shots at the rim are the most effective and desired, the corner three is the most strategically intriguing. Stopping it is increasingly central to all key defensive principles because offenses have correctly identified it as a shot they should fall in love with. Veterans across the league work to develop their range from a baseline 15-footer out to the corner, knowing it’ll increase their careers and make them a more valuable commodity (which means more $$$). Chris Bosh and Serge Ibaka are two popular examples, but remember Patrick Patterson? Just a hunch, but there are more players in the league today who can hit this shot consistently than ever before.

Heading into this season, Houston’s coaching staff preached how important it was for their defenders to improve their rotations on the perimeter, become aware of both the ball and their man, and, most importantly, close out on open shooters in the corner. Improvement here was mandatory.

Last year they were awful. Opponents imposed their will from the corner, hitting 43.8% of their shots, which was the second worst defensive mark in the league. They allowed 5.7 attempts per game: eighth highest. On the other end of the floor, the Rockets launched the third most corner threes despite ranking 28th in accuracy. The team clearly knew how important the shot was, and is.

Fast forward to now. Houston’s foes are currently shooting just 33.8% from the corner, which is the second stingiest percentage in the league. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder are better, and coming in third behind them are the Indiana Pacers.

So, just so we’re all on the same page, Houston is giving up the same number of corner three attempts as last year, but teams aren’t making them at the same rate. This is fantastic, but how is it happening? Is it just dumb luck? Or are they actually that much quicker to contest?

Dozens and dozens of wonderful examples exist, but here are just a few showing how decisive and quick Houston’s perimeter defenders are when bum-rushing the corner. The first two (both shot by Avery Bradley) went in.

From Monday night’s victory over Minnesota, here’s one play where Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley simultaneously convince Kevin Love to pass up an open three. It’s great effort, and smart basketball. Rubio’s three rimmed out moments later.

The largest difference between this season and last is Dwight Howard. For all the talk about a developing post game and whether he’s stunting James Harden’s offense in any way, shape, or form (I’m actually not sure if anyone talks about this, but I think about it from time to time), Howard’s defense remains non-fictionally impressive.

With Howard on the floor, opponents are shooting 32.9% from the corner. When he sits that number jumps to 36.4%—still 10th best in the league, but that’s obviously not the same as first.

 

He forces offenses to do things they don’t want to do, and allows his teammates to play with less hesitation and more aggressiveness. They can/should also be able to stay at home on the perimeter more often, even in situations where doing so is already obvious.

Here’s one. Timberwolves point guard J.J. Barea—who always looks like he could use a good night’s sleep—has a mismatch above the arc against Donatas Motiejunas. Minnesota recognizes it and clears out three players on the weak side (none of which are actually capable of spacing the floor).

Look at Beverley, who’s guarding Alexey Shved in the strong side corner. Should Barea drive, Beverley must velcro himself to that corner. This sounds easy, but players slide off all the time when that guard starts moving towards the paint. Should Howard fail to rotate off his man, Barea will get a clean layup, and a subconscious part of Beverley will probably feel like he could’ve done more to stop it. He’s helpless.

Like the good defender he is, Beverley does his job and stays put. This is where the trust factor comes in. Howard does slide over because that’s what annual Defensive Player of the Year candidates do, and the ball winds up behind Houston’s bench.

Some corner three attempts are unavoidable: shots that come in transition (when a big runs the floor and forces a guard to protect the rim) or amid the chaos that ensues after an offensive rebound.

What’s funny is Houston should be even better defending it than they already are. Here are two examples where even though Howard’s on the floor (and guarding the freaking ball), Chandler Parsons and Harden feel the need to over help.

 

Now seems like a good time to point out that Houston’s opponent’s shoot less than 30% from the corner when Harden is not playing. That’s 3000 miles from being a coincidence.

The Rockets do this type of thing far too often, which partly explains why they’re still above league average in corner threes allowed. But still, their overall improvement from last year is absolutely incredible, and should only get better as Omer Asik returns to form (count me among the four other people who believe Houston will keep him, and that a Howard/Asik frontcourt will have its revenge in the playoffs).

Houston’s corner three defense went from second worst to second best. Howard and Beverley are two contributors who should receive thanks (Beverley for helping limit dribble penetration, which keeps promising drive and kick situations to a minimum), but the overall group has bought into the idea that in order to actually win a playoff series this season, they’ll need to make offenses uncomfortable.

The coaches treated corner three defense as a priority in training camp. It appears the players were listening.

Michael Pina writes for Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth, Bleacher Report, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.

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