NBA Round 2 Lessons: The Rockets’ Defense Is a Weapon

NBA Round 2 Lessons: The Rockets’ Defense Is a Weapon article feature image

Pictured: Clint Capela and Chris Paul. Photo credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Highlights:

  • The Raptors had to stop LeBron James as a scorer or a facilitator, and they’ve done neither, which is a failure on a huge level.
  • The Sixers have their lackadaisical approach, not their youth, to blame for their struggles against Boston.
  • It’s time to kill the narrative that Houston is bad at defense. 


That’s the sound of the NBA’s second round.

Cavs up 3-0.

Celtics up 3-0.

Warriors up 3-1.

Rockets up 3-1.

It turns out that the top teams in the NBA are very good, if they are not the Raptors. So here’s a look at what we’ve learned from a series of dominant performances in the second round.


It’s an interesting question to think about: If Toronto played Boston, who would win? Would the Raptors melt down all the same? They didn’t against the Wizards. They won their first two games, were competitive in the two in D.C., then handled business to close it out. The Celtics have been mighty impressive, but they are taking advantage of flawed teams. If the Raptors weren’t facing this, one, singular monster, would they still look so overwhelmed, so panicked, so out of their depth? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to fault Toronto too much: LeBron James is so immensely powerful that he just blows by good defense. The young wings Toronto has thrown at him have no hope, no prayer:


He’s so locked in, he’s hitting shots such as the one below. James loves this shot:  It’s his usual heat-check test. If he’s knocking this down, you’re pretty much doomed no matter what.


But the bigger problem for Toronto is that he’s averaging 11 assists per game in this series. The Raptors came in knowing they had to limit him to either being a scorer or a distributor. He’s averaging 35 friggin’ points per game and 11 friggin’ assists per game. That’s a failure on a huge level.

The Raptors have been unable to stay disciplined with that, because it’s really hard. You want to help. You want to try to stop the ball. You want to try to force a turnover. And when you do, James is able to hit difficult passes with 90% or better accuracy. I’m not talking “the ball gets to the guy,” I’m talking “the ball hits the guy right where he wants it so he can catch and immediately go into his shooting motion.” Check this out:


The Raptors should have been better in this series; I certainly thought they’d be better. They crumbled, stumbled, collapsed under pressure. They saw that L-Train coming and simply froze as it ran them over.

What’s saddest for this Raptors team is this was their best shot. Their window is closing, with Kyle Lowry turning 33 next season, and the East on the rise. Even if James, Toronto’s demon, leaves the East, the Raptors won’t have a year where they’re this healthy, this deep, this able again, nor when the rest of the East is as vulnerable.

For James, this series is proof of his singular greatness. Give him a ragtag group — Kevin Love with an injured hand, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith having their best stretch of games in two years, 37-year-old Kyle Korver — and he’ll still beat the team with the best record in the East.

There were good reasons to doubt the Cavaliers, great reasons to trust the Raptors. In the end, all that mattered was that LeBron James is the greatest player of his generation, and unless you meet him at the absolute summit of the mountain, you’re the one who will wind up falling.

If you’re able to get past James, this series is wonky, I can’t lie. The Raptors have a better offensive rebound rate and more second-chance points. They lead in fast-break points and points in the paint in this series. They have the second-best effective field goal percentage of all teams in the second round, and the second-best offensive efficiency. There are a lot of reasons to think this series should be at most 2-1 Cleveland, with the Raptors having every chance to tie the series.

But it’s not, and they don’t. Because of LeBron James.



The takes began to fly almost immediately following Game 3. “Don’t say this Sixers team lost because of inexperience, because the Celtics are actually younger!”

Listen, two groups of people can share a characteristic and it cannot affect one and affect the other. This is not a binary state. There are gradients.

The reality is that the Celtics’ young guys are in a much better position and much better equipped to handle their roles on this stage than the Sixers’. The Celtics’ best player is Al Horford (who we will get to in a minute). The Sixers’ best player is either Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons, both in their first 100 games of playing in the NBA, and both in their first playoff series. Boston has young guys such as Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart who went to the conference finals last year. The Sixers have J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli … who had a cup of coffee with the Spurs? Amir Johnson? Meanwhile, Simmons, Embiid, Robert Covington, Dario Saric are all in the playoffs for the first time.

And look, beyond all that, it’s hard to watch these plays and not chalk some of this up to just losing your focus. Simmons screens his own man to create a crucial turnover!


Then Embiid shows a lackadaisical approach that is just downright baffling considering the situation:


And with a chance to tie in overtime, Embiid fails to establish position and Simmons throws a lazy pass to end the game.


The Sixers were simply unprepared for the Celtics to attack them that way.

Just because the Celtics were better prepared for that moment doesn’t mean it wasn’t inexperience that cost the Sixers. Redick’s pass was on target; that’s a timing play that Simmons ruined. Embiid has to just wait to make sure he makes the right pass to Belinelli on the second play. And Simmons can’t throw that with any chance Horford can get to it. Throw it high and Embiid likely snags it.

The Sixers weren’t ready for this moment and the Celtics were. That’s a credit to Boston, not some sort of inherent flaw with Philly. We’re so quick to try to snuff out any and all excuses we fail to recognize when they’re valid.


Jayson Tatum is only shooting 31% from 3-point range, and just 45% from the field in the playoffs. That’s pretty surprising, because it feels at times like he’s dominating. His individual scores are pretty spectacular.

Do you want to know how good he’s been? He has the sixth-most points by a player 20 years old or younger in a semifinals series, ever, already.

In overtime, he crosses over Embiid, gets to the rack, jump stops, lets him fly by, and scores easily.


In the fourth quarter, he takes Ben Simmons off the drive, puts his shoulder in hard without taking an angle that will draw a foul, then pulls up and nails the short-range jumper.


And he just blows by Robert Covington, who many feel is first-team All-Defense, for the dunk:


We’re probably not talking enough about Tatum’s impact, considering how the Celtics offense had been previously rendered inept without Kyrie Irving. With Tatum on the floor in the playoffs, the Celtics have a 107 offensive rating, third-best on the team behind Horford and Rozier. But Rozier and Horford without Tatum go down to a 104 offensive rating from 108. He helps that much.

And if the Celtics are going to have any chance against LeB…no, it’s too soon. Not by much, just a touch.


Horford, on top of two clinching buckets to help Boston go up 3-0, has a net on vs. off court Net Rating of +38.4. With him on the floor, they beat the Sixers by 19.2 points per 100 possessions, with him on the bench, they get outscored by 19.2 points per 100 possessions. Horford has been the MVP of this series by a significant margin.

Horford has held Joel Embiid to 42% shooting. He’s gotten whatever looks he wants. He’s averaging 17-8-4 without having to take up a high usage and leading these kiddos to the conference finals. Let’s appreciate how great the best season of Horford’s career has been, before he has to face the Cavs’ Thompson, who inexplicably owns him, next round.


The Warriors got mad about losing Game 3 to the Pelicans and decided to stop screwing around. They started their five best players, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green in Game 4, and, well…

That’s pretty much that. The Pelicans played well in this series, they acquitted themselves with aplomb, played hard, hung around. But the Warriors just have too much. Stop me if you’ve heard all this before.

One thing to note: that Hamptons 5 lineup isn’t something Steve Kerr goes to often, and it drives Warriors fans crazy. They’d really rather see the team just play that lineup 40 minutes a game, and then the rest can be garbage time. It’s a hard lineup to use for long minutes because of the strain it puts on players. Also, one of the reasons it worked so well in Game 4 was because of the insane focus and effort the team put in, which isn’t going to happen every time.

My point here: it’s a deadly weapon, but it’s not one you can just simply throw out there every night.


The Rockets have been a great defensive team in these playoffs. Not good. Great. Last year in the playoffs they had a 107 defensive rating. That’s down to 101 this year. The Jazz in particular are doomed because they lack a second playmaker outside of Donovan Mitchell. The Rockets are daring Joe Ingles to create shots for both himself and others and after Game 2 … that hasn’t gone well.

But the Rockets also have good principles, and they cover for their weaknesses. Here James Harden loses his man, but when the helper covers for him, he sprints to the corner to run off the corner 3, forcing the drive. The driver could still have found the corner shooter, but it’s an example of what the Rockets can do when they’re in good form:


Clint Capela (pictured atop story with Chris Paul) has been absolutely dominant, especially on switches vs. guards. There’s just very little hope of scoring on him right now:


Capela has been the best big in this series, over Rudy Gobert, the likely Defensive Player of the Year, and that has snuffed most of Utah’s hopes for hanging in. The narratives about Houston being bad at defense need to end, immediately.

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