The Houston Rockets’ biggest obstacle en route to the Larry O’Brien trophy is their lack of size. Teams will be able to focus in on this weakness in the playoffs. Protecting the rim and ending possessions will not come easy to them. Despite this, they have held up in the paint against Oklahoma City. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Thunder have yet to convert over 60% of their shots at the rim in any game this series despite their regular season mark of 64.2% within four feet. The Thunder posted lackluster offensive ratings of 110.6, 106.5, and 104.4 in Games 1, 2, and 3 respectively.
Houston’s defensive strategy is commonly referred to as a switching scheme. Yet to call what they are doing against the Thunder “switching” sells it short. It does not explain how they have been able to defuse Steven Adams post ups or Dennis Schröder drives despite not having a real rim defender. They switch everything on-ball but deploy zone concepts off-ball and double the interior against every paint touch.
This means that the sole Rocket defending the weak side corner zones up against two shooters off-ball. This can spell trouble against initiators who can quickly reverse the ball to the opposite side. Smart teams chock full of good shooters like Utah will keep swinging the ball against this type of coverage until the defense springs a leak.
Unlike Utah, Oklahoma City rarely puts two above average shooters on the weak side together. They do not have any floor spacers outside of Danillo Gallinari and their stellar guard trio of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Schröder. Meanwhile, rookie Luguentz Dort has proven to be the only Thunder player who can slow down James Harden, and thus warrants 30 minutes a game. On the other end, Dort is a poor outside shooter, hitting 30% from three this regular season. Houston has found ways to exploit this.
If Dort is one of the weak side shooters, they simply don’t guard him. This allows Houston to double the paint without having to rotate back to him. This play from Game 2 is similar from the play in the Utah clip, the difference being that Juwan Morgan demanded respect from the corner and moved the ball to Gobert whereas Houston implores Dort to take a wide open three.
Outside of OKC’s three guards getting to the rim, Houston’s biggest priority inside is deterring Adams from scoring in the post. While P.J. Tucker is rarely moved in the paint, he gives up six inches. Against Adams post-ups, Dort’s man has often come early to double, leading to a few stolen entry passes.
The Thunder found ways to scrape together a win in Game 3. Dort set on-ball screens and looked to cut baseline when the defense ignored him off-ball. Oklahoma City pushed the in transition more so that they would not have to score against a set defense. However, their offensive rating was no better than in the first two games. The biggest reason they won Game 3 was Houston shooting 15-50 from behind the arc. Oklahoma City can only do so much to mask Dort’s lack of gravity and the Rockets appear to be in control of the series.
Houston’s defensive blueprint against the Thunder could prove useful against the Lakers, who seem to be taking care of business in their first-round series as well. The Lakers have no choice but to play a few non-shooters in their rotation, and will almost always have one below average shooter on the court. It’s possible that even if they double the paint on every LeBron drive, he will still rip through their undersized bigs. However, if Houston can curb the Los Angeles’ interior attack and force Alex Caruso or Markieff Morris to hurt them from deep, they have a viable strategy to upset the Lakers.