The Houston Rockets are wreaking havoc on overconfident centers

Houston Rockets Robert Covington (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Robert Covington (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /
Houston Rockets Robert Covington (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Robert Covington (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets are being underestimated due to their size, and it’s messing with the heads of the NBA’s best big men.

Since I’ve known it, basketball has always been a tall man’s game. It makes perfect sense — the hoop is 10 feet above the ground and the closer you are to it, the easier the game should be, right? (Lack of height is the only reason I’m not in the NBA myself, of course.) So what must 7-footers think when they see the Houston Rockets trotting out an all 6-6 and under lineup on a nightly basis?

When you see a physical mismatch, the instinct is to think you’ll have a field day against your smaller opponent. Similar thoughts were likely going on in the minds of Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis last Thursday before they tipped off against the micro ball Rockets.

After 48 minutes, the Los Angeles Lakers learned the hard way that the Rockets’ small stature doesn’t equate to playing timid on the court. Harrassed into one of his worst games of the season, Davis scored just 17 points while matching a career high in turnovers with seven.

It’s not easy to keep a guy like Anthony Davis out of rhythm, but the Rockets have managed to do so one more than one occasion this season.

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Anthony Davis P.J. Tucker (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Anthony Davis P.J. Tucker (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

The key to the Houston Rockets interior D

Despite giving up five inches, P.J. Tucker was frustrating Davis by keeping him out of the paint often, and not giving up much ground on post-ups. The result was either a tough, forced shot or an ill-advised pass that would lead to a turnover.

In this play, there were other Rockets in the vicinity to help in case Davis was able to maneuver past Tucker and make his way to the hoop, which is a smart move.

But what happens when the 6-10 Davis is in a one-on-one situation with P.J? Well, that depends on where Davis starts with the ball.

Tucker’s 245-pound frame doesn’t allow for many people to bully him into the paint, which gives him the advantage of being able to use his foot speed to keep up with Davis. The result, more often than not, is something like this.

Veteran center Dwight Howard had different struggles adjusting to the small Rockets’ lineup, turning the ball over six times but mostly due to not knowing how to establish his position without shoving a Rocket to the floor.

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It’s hard to blame Howard, who’s undoubtedly used to battling other guys even close to his weight class in the paint. Therein lies the problem that so many teams are running into when trying to keep up with the lightweight but heavy-hitting Rockets.

Another critical element to the Houston Rockets’ defensive toughness is the guy they traded away their starting center for, Robert Covington.

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Montrezl Harrell Robert Covington (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Montrezl Harrell Robert Covington (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

The Covington Effect

Making matters worse for opposing bigs is the fact that, even when they think they have Houston beat for an easy bucket, Robert Covington is often lurking for a surprise block. It’s been one of the most entertaining trends to watch all year, as Covington continues to come out of nowhere and block guys much taller than him at the rim.

What’s remarkable about this play is when Covington begins his jump to defend Dwight Howard’s shot. If you freeze the frame just as Howard fends off Harden and is crouching to begin his leap for a dunk, Covington is already jumping vertically. In effect, he’s using his leaping ability to make up for his lack of height by going up earlier.

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Covington has been doing similar things to guys like Andre Drummond, Jonathan Isaac, and Giannis Antetokounmpo throughout his entire time in Space City, which has him blocking shots at a career-high rate of 2.4 per game. To put that in perspective, the highest average blocks per game Clint Capela ever managed was 1.9 in 2017-18.

Will the better teams in the league make adjustments to the Rockets’ micro-ball approach in the playoffs? Certainly. But that’s when Coach Mike D’Antoni will need to make his own changes.

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Basketball is becoming less of a big man’s game, and the Houston Rockets are at the forefront of the movement. With some luck, their innovative approach can lead to an even bigger surprise this fall.