By: J.M. Poulard

The Houston Rockets (12-15) came into this season hoping to contend for possibly one of the top spots in the Western Conference because of the return of Yao Ming. With Yao now being sidelined for the remainder of the campaign, this Rockets team is trying to do the best they can with the parts they have. On Monday night, they play the Golden State Warriors (9-17) in what we hope will be repeat of their first game back in October; a thrilling 132-128 win for the Warriors.

The Rockets do a great job on offense as they produce 105.4 points per game on 45.8% field goal shooting (15th in the association). Houston players do a fantastic job of moving without the ball and trying to help one another get the easiest shot possible. Much like in his days when he was coaching the Chris Webber led Sacramento Kings, Rick Adelman runs a motion offense that requires for players to always be in movement. The end result is that the Rockets do a lot of cutting and screening and ask their big men to read defenses and pass (extremely underrated group of passing big men) the ball to the scorers while they are on the move.

Consequently, Houston is able to get some inside baskets to the tune of 43.8 points per game in the paint (8th in the NBA). The most impressive aspect of the Houston offense is how fast they recognize mismatches. For instance, If a guard switches on to Shane Battier on a down screen, the ball will go directly to him in the post where he will try to score or draw a foul. It is a sound strategy, however it does not always pan out. Indeed, Houston shoots a subpar 60.4% at the rim, (the league average is 62.8%) which is 23rd in the NBA. Mind you, those touches in the paint do result in the Rockets shooting 27.6 free throws per game (fourth in the NBA).

Attacking mismatches is obviously a big key to being successful in the NBA but ultimately every team needs scorers in order to be successful and Houston has two of them in the form of Luis Scola and Kevin Martin (Aaron Brooks is a scorer as well but just returning from injury and is playing limited minutes). The Argentinean does a phenomenal job of never remaining still on the court; he chooses to instead move without the ball and set screens to get himself open (note for the kids: players that set great screens always get open). Once the ball is in his hands, he has the option of shooting the midrange jump shot or simply attack his defender in the post where he puts him in a torture box of post moves that rely on exquisite footwork and fakes.

Kevin Martin on the other hand just finds ways to get open to score. He has the ability to take defenders off the dribble but it’s not his biggest strength thus he shies away from it a bit. Instead, Martin does it the old fashion way: he gets himself open to shoot. Nothing ever seems forced. K-Mart relies on his smarts to run defenders through screens to get himself open and also knows when to put his head down and attack the basket to get to the line.

The attention that both Luis Scola an Kevin Martin attract allows their teammates to get open and put up 20.2 three point field goal attempts (eighth in the NBA) and convert them at the scorching clip of 38.9% (fifth in the league).

On defense however, the Houston Rockets surrender 105.4 points per game (25th in the league) on a sizzling 47.1% field goal shooting (23rd in the association). Watching this team defend is interesting on many fronts. They have great individual defenders in Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes who typically do a great job of containing the players they are matched up with. Mind you, the remaining players on the team are average individual defenders at best; which means the Rockets have to find some great schemes to defend teams.

For instance, when Chuck Hayes is involved in pick and roll situations, he will allow a non-perimeter scorer to take the screen while he does a minimal effort in thwarting the offensive player. This is by design; the more shots you can get the wrong player to take, it means the best offensive option is not getting the open looks he seeks. In contrast, if Hayes is involved in a pick and roll situation with a high scoring perimeter player, then he will hedge out to allow his teammate to recover and then get back to his man. The former Kentucky player is great in these situations and thus helps limit the scoring possibilities, especially with Battier on the floor.

On the other hand, teams will try to take advantage of Luis Scola in pick and roll situations. Indeed, when defending a non scoring perimeter player in the screen and roll action, Scola will try to trap that player at times to force a turnover or simply disrupt the offense. However, if the offensive player is expecting this, he can quickly swing the ball to an open teammate and force the defense to rotate. Also, when faced with a pick and roll situation involving an outside scoring threat, Scola will try to step up and hedge to contain the ball handler, however his lack of foot speed make it as such that he has to give the player coming off the screen some space which at times prevents him from containing the scorer.

The end result is that with the absence of Yao Ming, the Rockets have no player to protect the basket. So although Houston is on to something from a schematic standpoint, once their defense is forced to rotate and opponents get inside the lane, they usually score. Houston is allowing opponents to create 23.0 shots per game at the rim (24th in NBA) and to convert those field goal attempts at a 63.8% rate (20th in the league). Given the fact that teams are able to attack their interior defense, the Rockets let their opponents generate 26.0 free throw attempts per game (24th in the league). Also, given their vulnerabilities on the interior, Houston must provide more help than they would like to give, thus giving up open threes. Indeed, Houston opponents are shooting an astounding 38.8% from deep.

To put that in perspective, J.J. Redick is one of the NBA’s best shooters and he’s shooting 36.2% from three point range. So needless to say, Houston’s perimeter defense could be better.

So when Golden State enters the opposing building on Monday night, expect them to light up the scoreboard. Really the only question I have is whether Houston will be lighting it up as well against the Warriors.