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Houston Rockets: Defense Wins Championships

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It will be the defense, not the offense, that determines the ceiling of the Houston Rockets.

The Houston Rockets’ success so far would have surprised even the most optimistic fan. Currently projected to finish the season with 60 wins, the Rockets are just one game shy of the San Antonio Spurs and the second seed in the West. No one could have predicted this. Before the season, even 51 wins would have seemed laughable to the critics.

How does an all-offense-no-defense team led by James Harden and Mike D‘Antoni stop anyone? How do they win games when the threes aren’t falling? The season may be young, but so far the Rockets have had the answers.

Since the beginning of December the Houston Rockets have been the league’s 6th best defensive team, posting a 104.5 defensive rating. Not surprisingly, they’ve gone 20-3 during that stretch.

However, perhaps the most promising aspect of the team’s post-November success is that it’s been achieved against a reasonably strong schedule. The Rockets have faced some of the league’s best teams, and despite the shots not falling on the road, they’ve been able to grind out wins by playing defense.

Apr 15, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard
Apr 15, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard

Nope you didn’t read that wrong, the Houston Rockets really do play defense!

Since December, the Rockets have faced plenty of above-average offenses, including the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, Oklahoma City Thunder (twice) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (twice). They’ve also had match-ups against the three best offenses outside of Houston, with games against the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs. The defense has held up in all of those match-ups, even closing out wins against the league’s two best offenses.

In the double-overtime win against the Warriors, the Rockets shot a disappointing 31.8% from three. However, they defended well, forcing 17 turnovers and restricting the Warriors to 41.3% from the field and 27.3% from deep.

In Toronto, the Rockets shot a terrible 28.9% from three, compared to the Raptors 44% from deep. But despite the Raptors’ out-of-character shooting, the Rockets were able to hold them to a respectable 1.09 points per possession by forcing another 17 turnovers.

There were also guys who stepped up and made big plays down the stretch, most notably James Harden.

James Harden’s big defensive stops to close out the Raptors

Surprisingly, the team’s defensive success has been achieved despite the absence of starting center, Clint Capela. It may seem as if there’s a correlation between Capela’s absence and the defensive uptick, but that’s unlikely. Capela may be inexperienced, but he’s still the team’s best rim protector and rebounder. It seems more likely that something else sparked the run.

The return of Patrick Beverley in late November certainly helped. However, it feels as if the team developing a winning culture helped more. The win against the Warriors inspired confidence, and the chemistry within the group has been incredible ever since.

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The Rockets are a veteran team that loves playing together and wants to win. They know what it takes to win and most importantly, they’re willing to play hard to make it happen. Unlike last years team. It will be exciting to see what this team can accomplish when fully healthy.

The 2016-17 Rockets understand that getting the most out of the defensive talent is vital to the team’s success. As the league leader in made threes, it’s easy to conclude that their success is dependent on elite shooting. However, the defense has been equally, if not more, important.

Sure, the Rockets have the offensive fire-power to outscore any opponent and their three-point weapons make any lead feel surmountable.  But it’s the defense that has proven to be the difference-maker against the league’s best teams.

Next: Personnel Moves in Store for the Rockets?

Come playoff time, it’s the defense that will decide whether or not this team is a Western Conference Contender or a first-round exit.

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