By: Rob Dover
There has been a lot of roster turnover for the Houston Rockets over the past year. Looking back at the team from last year, a grim irony immediately leaps out - last year's roster was perfectly constructed to weather the injury storm the Rockets are facing right now. That team featured enviable depth at the point (Beverley, Lin, Brooks) as well as a plethora of capable centers (Howard, Asik, Smith), and if there were any team capable of maintaining their level of play in a crisis like this, it would be that one. But sadly the off-season departures of Lin and Asik have given the Rockets flexibility at the expense of depth. Now with Jason Terry thrust into starting duties at the point and the untested Black and Dorsey manning the middle, the Rockets will have to come up with a coping strategy to avoid losing ground in the Western Conference standings until their players can regain health. In this article I will have a look at some of the things the Rockets can try to keep winning at this difficult time.
1. Use Motiejunas
An obvious one to start - D-Mo is the Rockets' only remaining big man to be an offensive threat and in order to maintain their scoring balance on the floor they must establish his game. Over the past few games he has been scoring well out of the low block - the post game has always been his strength though, so that's not a big surprise. But I've been pleased to see the Rockets make use of Motiejunas' passing instincts in pick-and-roll situations as well. The video below shows an example play the Rockets have run several times recently with good success:
The combination of Harden and Motiejunas can be deadly here. Defenses often show the big man defender towards Harden to get the ball out of his hands, but on the roll Motiejunas is a big enough threat to draw the help defense (in this case from Nowitzki). This causes a cascade effect where Nelson then has to help off his man to prevent Black getting a dunk, and D-Mo can pick out the wide open Patrick Beverley in the corner for the open three.
2. Extend the defense
Without Dwight Howard to patrol the paint, the Rockets do not have a convincing rim protection threat (Dorsey and Black try their best, but they're not in the same league). To make up for this, the Rockets can try to put more pressure on opposing ball-handlers far away from the rim to make it more difficult for them to slice into the lane. This was something they did a lot during the Clippers game, where ball pressure was paramount to prevent Lob City from getting in full swing, but they were doing it a bit in the Bucks game too:
The Rockets are using the mobility and length of Motiejunas (I've seen them do this with Black too) to engage in some Miami Heat-style blitz defense against the pick-and-roll. They've done a good job of doing this selectively to force turnovers when the ball is on the sideline. Having additional weapons like this in their defensive arsenal is a must to overcome the limitations enforced on the team by the injury bug.
3. React to how opponents defend Harden
There are two schools of thought when attempting to deal with opposing superstars - either get the ball out of their hands or let him get his and prevent everyone else from scoring. The Rockets are set up to exploit the decision making process when teams face this dilemma against Dwight, but they haven't yet come up with a good plan for dealing with the same decisions made against Harden. The Clippers in particular were very effective in forcing the ball out of Harden's hands, and with viable alternative ball-handlers dropping like flies, it is difficult for Houston to profit from the attention Harden draws without the ball. Here's an example:
At the beginning of this clip, Terry tries to get some penetration to the basket. When that fails, the Clippers are able to focus three defenders on Harden and a lack of secondary action forces him into a dangerous pass that Chris Paul picks off.
Particularly in situations like the above, the Rockets need to recognize when Harden is drawing this much attention and run some secondary action to distract the defense. They also need to try to run plays where Harden catches the ball already on the move. The 1-4 flat style offense is just not going to cut it with so many of Houston's other weapons unavailable.