29 November 2020

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This is How Defenses Can Counter Houston’s Small-Ball:

Houston’s new Small-Ball is one of the biggest areas for speculation come playoff time. Mike D’Antoni’s new Five-and-Out system is designed to maximize offensive potential. The main gist of it is that they match their lack of inside defense with an unstoppable offense.

Although this is an interesting idea, there are clear disadvantages at defense, and if their offense is figured out, the Rockets are going to get hammered.

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN RAOUX

The purpose of their Five-and-Out system is to stretch the floor as much as possible by having all five players on the perimeter. This, in turn, will force opposing bigs to the perimeter where they can be out-maneuvered by PJ Tucker or Robert Covington. The purpose is to make Centers like Andre Drummond or Clint Capela, who are best known for their inside defense, a liability on that end.

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It is one of the most compelling strategies ever used in basketball. Even when the Warriors made three-point shooting a priority for every single team and made Centers less necessary, they still used a Center like Andrew Bogut or Javale Mcgee in the middle. 

Houston is going against all NBA normalities and has no players above 6’9 on their team. Covington, who will be playing Power Forward, is the tallest player on Houston’s roster. 

So far, we haven’t seen what this Small-Ball is really like. They have gone 2-2 since committing to this new style, but that small sample size isn’t enough to make any decisions yet. They got hammered by the Phoenix Suns, but took out the Lakers and Celtics, so it is capable of winning games.

The style is very new, and defenses are going to have to stay on top of the Rockets at all times. If Houston can get hot offensively, the opposing team is going to be in major trouble as Houston may well become the best offensive team in the league under this system,

That is unless they use this strategy:

Mark J Terrill/AP

Ironically enough, the reason this strategy is legal is because of the most dominant Center to every play the game: Shaquille O’Neal

Because of Shaq’s outright dominance over literally anyone he played against, the NBA allowed a strategy of defense commonly used in college, most notably by Syracuse.

Dennis Nett | dnett@syracuse.com

I’m talking about Zone Defense. Not only the 2-3, though. Using just one zone will allow Houston’s offense to adapt and they will begin to score again.

The best way to stop Houston’s offense is by continuously switching up the defense being used. For the first five minutes, they could go man-to-man, and then for another five, the 2-3, and then for another five, a 3-2.

This may sound over-extravagant, but so did Small-Ball, and it has proven to be able to win games, beating teams like the Lakers and Celtics. What opposing teams need is a healthy use of different zone defenses to combat the unpredictable offense.

During the 2-3, PJ Tucker or Robert Covington won’t be able to just sweep past their bigger defenders because there will be a 7’0 wall waiting for them in the middle. This will force Westbrook to essentially disappear because he is a horrible three-point shooter, meaning that they can focus the majority of perimeter attention on Harden. Harden has been streaky this year, having several cold spells where he shoots under 30%, yet still jacks up shot after shot. Tucker, House, and Covington will still be on the perimeter, and Harden will eventually catch on to the fact that he will need to pass the ball, but knowing Harden, he will take several shots before that happens. If he is missing his shots, they continue with the 2-3 until Harden eventually realizes he has no choice but to pass, and if he’s making his shots, they can transition into the 3-2.

Basketball For Coaches

The 3-2 zone is similar to the 2-3, but they have three players up, and two players down.  This zone will be effective in stopping the perimeter but leaves them more vulnerable inside if the opposing big is forced to go to the corner. The 3-2 will be the most ideal situation when Harden is going off. This way they can have an extra pair of hands in the front part of the perimeter, making Harden’s iso-ball less effective. The Rockets would have to go to Westbrook in the hopes that he can slide past the defenders for some dunks, but unless the ball is in the corner, it will still prove difficult for them. The 3-2 mainly leaves a defense vulnerable to cuts if the offense can move the ball fast enough, but it won’t be as effective because Houston likes to shoot the three. Like all zones, though, they will adapt to the defense and start scoring again.

Basketball For Coaches

The opposing defenses can’t be relying too heavily on one specific form of defense against the Rockets. They will need to implement the Man-to-Man, 2-3, and 3-2 highly effectively, and at different, random times to throw Houston off. They can’t stay with any one of these for too long, or the Rockets will figure it out, but if they continuously switch their defense, the Rockets won’t know how to react because the defense continues to change, forcing them to change their offense as well.

This is a far-fetched idea, but small-ball is as well. Opposing defenses need to utilize their Centers in the paint against these smaller players and prevent them from being forced onto the perimeter. The constant switching of the defensive scheme is going to prove very difficult for the Rockets, as they have shown time and time again in the playoffs that they are unable to adapt to new plans quickly. This style of defense will force them to have to adapt quickly, something Harden is incapable of doing.

The Rockets have a very new, very interesting offensive system. With it being new, however, it is likely incomplete and teams can take advantage of that. The zones will put constant pressure on Harden and the Rockets, and it will stop them in their tracks every time. Small-Ball is a trend that is going to die before it begins, and the zone is going to be a key contributor for that. 

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