Rocket Fuel: Defense returns, Melo departs
Despite a shaky 1-5 start to the season, the Houston Rockets now boast an 8-7 record after going 7-2 over its last nine games with impressive wins over top Western Conference teams like the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors.
Finally having a healthy roster has been a huge part of the Rockets’ recent success, but an even more important aspect has been defense.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni has drawn attention to a timeout in the second quarter of the win against the Brooklyn Nets, in which veteran guard and team leader Chris Paul called out his fellow players for their lack of effort on the defensive side of the ball.
Since the timeout turnaround, the Rockets’ defense has improved considerably and is now No. 5 in the league at only 105.7 points allowed per game.
While the callout by Paul was necessary, so too was a personnel change.
After an abysmal game in which he shot just 1-of-11 and tallied only a couple of points, 10-time All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony has played his last game as a Houston Rocket. After just 10 games of experimenting with Anthony in Houston, the Rockets are moving toward waiving him in the near future, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Rockets practice a “switch everything” defensive scheme that requires every player on the floor for Houston to be able to guard positions one through five of opposing teams. At times, superstar guard James Harden finds himself defending large-bodied forwards in the post, while other times young center Clint Capela is tasked with chasing guards around the perimeter.
Anthony was a weakness teams sought to take advantage of in this defensive scheme, and it is fortuitous it only took Houston 10 games to figure out it would not work.
In addition to Anthony’s eventual departure, there have been two other significant changes that can be given credit for the Rockets’ resurgence as a top defensive team: the return of associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik and the emergence of rookie forward Gary Clark.
Bzdelik, the architect of Houston’s current defensive scheme, retired unexpectedly in September right before the beginning of the season, citing personal problems. After recruiting efforts by Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, he has agreed to rejoin the team for the remainder of the 2018-2019 season.
The final defensive domino to fall into place is Clark. An undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati, he has already impressed enough to crack D’Antoni’s notoriously short rotation.
Even though the Bearcat alumnus’ stats do not jump off the page, his presence on the court has been nothing short of incredible. Offensively, he knows his role and plays within the flow of the offense, while on defense he is lively, consistently providing help-side coverage and playing the passing lanes, all at just 24 years old.
Houston has shown flashes of its 2017-2018 dominance with Clark in the rotation, as he gives the Rockets just what the team was missing: another versatile 3-and-D wing to go along with forwards James Ennis III and P.J. Tucker.
The Rockets will attempt to keep the newfound momentum going Wednesday with a 7 p.m. tip-off at home against Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons.