Houston Gets Defensive

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

LOS ANGELES -- During the hour or two prior to tipoff, it's typical for NBA teams to have game tape on the locker room monitor. Most of the time, it's footage of the basic network broadcast with no extras -- but not for the Houston Rockets Monday night. Each clip of video was coded by the name of the play set, and players actually tuned in, something else you don't usually see.

Over in the corner, Rockets assistant coach and defensive maven, Elston Turner, worked at the enormous dry erase board, drawing up x's and o's of the Lakers primary sets.

"Spontaneous creativity -- that's what makes them so tough," Turner said of the Lakers, as he marked up the board. "They're so flexible offensively. That kind of flexibility is unique, and you need defensive flexibility to stay with them."

Monday night at Staples Center, Houston employed that defensive flexibility. The Rockets clogged the passing lanes. They successfully pushed the Lakers' big men off their spots. Most of all, Houston's defensive strategy induced an ugly 32-point effort from Kobe Bryant, if such a thing is possible.

"We did a great job with team defense tonight," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "Every time [Bryant] came off the pick and roll, we had a guy there."

Thanks to the preparation of both the coaching staff and the roster, Houston's defense was able to anticipate the Lakers' offensive action, and prevent Bryant from penetrating into the paint.

Bryant took 26 jumpers Monday night, draining nine. He drove to the basket only seven times, resulting in four field goals, and five free throw attempts. How do you explain that 26:7 ratio for a player as explosive as Bryant?

"Overall we did a very good job of making a wall," Battier said. "That third guy in the pick-and-roll was there a lot better than in games past."

An illustration of what Battier was talking about:

  • [4th Quarter, 6:04] Derek Fisher leaves the ball at the top of the arc for Bryant, who's being guarded by Battier. Fisher clears out, as Pau Gasol steps up from the pinch post to give Bryant a screen. It's a fairly quick sequence: Battier runs beneath the screen. Meanwhile, as Bryant takes two dribbles to the right of the screen, Yao is four feet in front of him. Should Bryant try taking Yao off the dribble? Only if he's prepared to deal with the "third guy," as Battier referenced above. That would be Luis Scola, who has sagged off Trevor Ariza. Theoretically, Bryant could dish the ball off to Ariza to his left along the arc. Problem is: Battier has taken that angle away, too. As a result of their tight defense, the Rockets have effectively taken both the drive and the kick away from Bryant, leaving him with a contested jump shot -- which is exactly what Houston wants.

"We were trying to keep him from getting to the rim," Rockets head coach Rick Adelman said. "We have a lot of stats that we look at, and it's pretty obvious that when he gets to the rim, it's really difficult for the other team."

If Houston's scheme on Bryant looked familiar, there's a good reason. "It was kind of similar to what we did with Portland with Brandon Roy," Adelman said.

Bryant's five meager free throw attempts -- four of them in the final two minutes when the Lakers were cooked -- pleased the coaching staff. "The thing that was most impressive was that we kept [Bryant] off the free throw line," Turner said after the game.

Though Battier was satisfied with the overall defensive performance, he was also unassuming. "[Bryant] still scored 32 points," Battier said with a chuckle. "There's still room for improvement."

Battier was so earnest, it was hard not to take him at his word, but you also got the sense that Bryant's output -- those 32 points came on 33 possessions -- didn't bother Battier in the least.

"One thing about Shane I really appreciate is that ... he has a really good understanding that he's not going to shut Kobe down," Adelman said. "He's going to send him to the right spot where he knows he's going to have help, and that's crucial."

Here's what Adelman meant:

  • [2nd Quarter, 0:34] Gasol feeds Bryant just off the mid-left post, isolated against Battier. As Gasol clears out, Battier shades to Bryant's right, leaving Kobe the baseline. After a little pump-fake, Bryant accepts the invitation, puts the ball on the deck and drives baseline. Yao is waiting there for him, and blocks Bryant's layup attempt. Battier can't contain Bryant on every iso, but he can do his best to ensure that, if he gets beat, there's help behind him.

With Battier guarding him, Bryant went 8 for 22 from the field, but Houston also got efficient help from its back line defenders. Yao's presence defending the basket helped, but Luis Scola was another important piece. He spent most of the night on the Lakers' small forward -- a demonstration of the defensive flexibility that Turner alluded to before the game.

"We were able to play our 4 on their 3 and vice versa," Turner said after the game. "We had Artest guarding Odom. We were able to mix and match, and show some flexibility. That helped our defense."

After the game, there was only trace evidence of the x's and o's on the dry erase board. The banner headings "Rockets Offensive Goals" and "Rockets Defensive Goals," filled with sage advice just hours before, were blank. The Rockets' coaching staff huddled in the visiting coach's office, no doubt charting the course for Wednesday night, when Turner's black marker will once again outline plans for another 48 minutes of trench warfare -- just how the Rockets like it.