James Harden’s winner shows Rockets’ aggressive defense still learning to balance

LOS ANGELES — The prelude to the LA Clippers’ final possession with 25.7 seconds remaining was everything the Houston Rockets could have asked for, all things considered.

The previous 47 minutes, 35 seconds of Friday night’s In-Season Tournament fixture had been equal parts exciting and sloppy. It was a chippy, grimy and ugly game with the score somehow tied at 100, all elements of a defensive culture Houston has been cultivating on the back of a six-game winning streak.

For Houston, this is exactly the position they wanted to be against a wounded lion desperate for a win. Rockets head coach Ime Udoka had called an audible on the sidelines, subbing out Jalen Green and throwing out the five players he felt most comfortable sealing the deal defensively, the group that could toggle matchups and switch everything in front of them — Fred VanVleet, Jae’Sean Tate, Jabari Smith Jr., Jeff Green and Dillon Brooks.

On paper, this was the right approach. Although this particular five hadn’t played extensive minutes together — just six so far — a 71.4 defensive rating leaves a lot of potential to be actualized within that group.

For a team in the Clippers that featured future Hall of Famers and individual scorers in James Harden, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard — the Clippers ranked near the top of the league in isolations per game heading into Friday — the closing moments of a tight game would naturally fall on their shoulders.

And the Rockets, who had taken the league by surprise early on, had proven themselves worthy defenders of such an approach, ranking in the top three in fewest points per possession allowed in isolation.

We put in a unit to switch everything and made them take a tough shot,” Udoka said following Houston’s 106-100 loss, “But obviously we don’t want to foul. We want to contest, especially a 3. Get a good contest and if they make it, we still have a chance.”

The first 10 games of the 2023-24 season are a bit extreme for comparisons to the lethal Rockets teams from 2017-2020, but even current Clippers forward P.J. Tucker, who was the heart and soul of those stingy defensive units, could see the vision Udoka has been trying to establish.

Houston has made a habit this season of playing an aggressive style of defense that would make even Tucker blush. They have successfully rebounded from an opening-night shellacking and have turned it into the league’s third-best defense, per Cleaning The Glass. Gone are the Trevor Arizas and Luc Mbah a Moutes of the world, but these boys can fly:

Kind of similar,” Tucker told The Athletic. “Switching slows down offenses and makes guys have to play iso. You got guys that can guard multiple positions, obviously a lot of similarities in that. That’s something that if you got weapons at the four and five that can switch, it makes it tough on guys.”

The Clippers’ ultimate fourth-quarter sequence couldn’t have been mapped out any better for Houston. Tate was hounding Harden as he brought the ball up the floor, Green attached to Ivica Zubac, VanVleet with Norman Powell, Dillon Brooks on George and Smith on Leonard. Powell attempted to force VanVleet onto Leonard, a move that was swiftly blown up by Smith who refused to concede even an inch to Leonard.

Eventually, the ball fell into Harden’s hands who danced loosely with an overzealous Tate and drained a trademark stepback triple with six seconds to go — plus the foul. It was an emotional dagger of a shot, the same signature move the Rockets had seen over and over again years ago. Game, blouses.

“Something I work on every day,” Harden told The Athletic. “You practice it, you have confidence and go out there and shoot it.”

After the game, the message echoed from both Udoka and VanVleet was one of discipline. The Rockets committed a whopping 28 fouls, sending the Clippers to the charity stripe 30 times. In adopting a desired brand of physicality, Houston has also signed up for everything that comes with it.

The Rockets are second in the NBA in fouls per game at 21.8. Tucker’s team during the 2019-20 season? 21.8. The season before? 22.0. Within the wild world of defense, there’s a delicate line that exists between chaos and control. Generating stops and turnovers without drawing a frequent whistle. At 6-4, Houston is still figuring out that balance. Against the Clippers, early foul trouble for players like Tate and Smith threw their rhythm off, forcing earlier-than-anticipated substitutions, altering approaches and forcing the Rockets away from the things that make them great. At one point, Brooks, Tate and Smith all had four fouls, suboptimal against a Clippers team clawing to break a losing streak.

Discipline,” Udoka said. “Especially against teams and personnel that like to bait into fouls. Showing hands is the main thing. We got too grabby and reachy. We want to be physical without fouling.”

Good luck. The Rockets have several aggressive types on the roster now and considering the fact that aggression has gotten them where they currently are, there’s no going back. Udoka is at the mercy of whatever officiating crew is on the floor. Some games, it’ll pay off and others, the opposing team will live at the free-throw line. It’s impossible to ask players like Brooks and Tate to play less physically. It’s like asking Steph Curry not to shoot 3s or LeBron James not to create offense for others. Of course, they can do it, but it helps no one.

Last season, Houston routinely got punched in the mouth by teams that had no problem walking all over them. These days, you have to fight for every bucket. That’s progress. Their point-of-attack defense, propped up by their switching is much-improved. Their help defense is effective as well. Both sections join to make quite the formidable duo. VanVleet mentioned the team needs to reduce how much they reach and slap arms, opting to remain solid in their base. When they do that, it’s quite a challenge getting a bucket, even for the game’s best players.

I thought we guarded them pretty well,” VanVleet said. “We talked about it after the game, execution-wise it wasn’t our best, it wasn’t our sharpest or most disciplined night. We fouled them a bunch. But we were bumping. We were fighting. We were guarding one-on-one. Guys stepped up to the challenge.”

It’s why it’s important to keep the long-term goals the long-term goals. Houston will be disappointed dropping a game like this which they felt was theirs for the taking, but on a macro scale, they shouldn’t. There had been asterisks on some earlier wins against ailing teams, but the Clippers had their stars available — and then some. Friday night was a litmus test, not a final exam.

These are building blocks. A few months ago, questions were surrounding this organization regarding how they would improve from a dismal 22-win season. They’re now in a position where losing a game to a surefire playoff team is considered a letdown. The Rockets are headed in the right direction, regardless of what happens on a Friday night in November.

“They got a good thing going on,” Harden said. “Just gotta continue to grow, continue to learn. They’ll figure it out.”

(Photo of James Harden: Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

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