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Tramel: Houston's unique DEFENSE gives OKC Thunder headaches

The Houston Rockets are a team from another land. They play alien basketball. They play the game unlike we’ve ever seen. Maybe that makes them pioneers, maybe that makes them eccentric. I don’t know.

But one thing we learned Tuesday night in the Rockets’ 123-108 playoff rout of the Thunder is that Houston’s peculiarities are not restricted to offense.

We think of offense with the James Harden Rockets. Houston’s absolute refusal to launch anything but 3-pointers or shots around the rim was on full display – only three of the Rockets’ 89 shots were non-paint 2-point attempts.

This is like playing a Mike Leach offense 20 years ago. Defending against the wishbone 50 years ago. This is like pitching to Babe Ruth in 1919. Seeing something you’ve never seen before.

But turns out, Houston’s exotic nature also extends to the Rockets’ defense. Houston declines to give into the pick-and-roll game. Defenders just switch on every screen. When you play small, without a center, that’s possible.

The Rockets’ biggest starters are Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker. Both are noted perimeter defenders. Around OKC, Tucker once was the guy who matched up well as a nuisance to Kevin Durant.

Houston’s switch-everything philosophy means little guys like Eric Gordon or slight guys like Ben McLemore or Danuel House Jr. get switched onto mammoth Steven Adams. But what difference does it make if Covington or Tucker moves off Adams? They can’t match up physically anyway.

So Houston sells out defensively by pressuring the ball when it’s in the hands of a good shooter and stepping back when it’s not.

And in Game 1, the Thunder seemed perplexed by Houston’s wholesale commitment to switching.

“We’re gonna figure it out,” said Chris Paul, who played a frustrating, unproductive game until a late flurry when the game was decided. “It’s a different (kind of) team. It’s Game 1. We gotta figure it out. That’s why they are who they are.”

CP3 pointed out that most teams defend the pick-and-roll by showing, which is a quick double team before the screener’s defender hustles back to the screener when he moves, or dropping, which means defenders go under the screen and give players a moment to launch an open shot.

But Houston has decided to not fight it, at least not since trading center Clint Capela in February and committing 100 percent to small ball.

Now, the Rockets just switch. Everything. If Adams sets a screen on Gordon, who is guarding Paul, Gordon just starts guarding Adams and whoever was defending Adams switches onto Paul.

The antidote for that is to make Houston pay inside. Just because the Rockets are willing to let Austin Rivers or James Harden match up on Adams or 6-foot-10 Danilo Gallinari, doesn’t mean Houston can stop it.

And both Gallinari and Adams had big nights in Game 1.

Gallinari scored 29 points; he made nine of 17 shots, including two of five from 3-point range and nine of nine from the foul line.

Adams had 17 points; he made seven of 13 shots and was three of six from the foul line.

Together, Gallinari and Adams made 16 of 30 shots. The rest of the roster combined shot 21 of 54, 38.9 percent.

“We need to keep going to the post, we were really effective in the post,” Gallinari said. “But at the same time, we need to play Thunder basketball. We need to go up and down the floor and pick up the pace.”

The Thunder was outscored 13-2 in fast-break points. Billy Donovan mentioned that OKC played too slow. But transition offense can be overrated against Houston, since some transition offense flourishes by setting up mismatches, and the Rockets are oblivious to mismatches.

No, the offensive key for the Thunder is to use Adams’ and Gallinari’s strength and size.

That can be dangerous, especially with Adams. He’s not a great back-to-the-basket player. Getting Adams the ball 10 feet from the basket and asking him to back down a smaller defender is dangerous. Too many things can go wrong. Get Adams the ball five feet from the basket, and good things happen for the Thunder.

Gallinari is effective in most any post territory, even 18 feet from the basket. TNT’s Stan Van Gundy mentioned it on the broadcast; Gallinari doesn’t try to do too much. He squares his foot, makes rational decisions and scores in a variety of ways.

Gallinari is not a great driver – his ballhandling is so-so – and he made just two of five shots in Game 1 when attacking the paint. But he also was fouled at the rim three times, and those are virtual baskets, since he’s a 90-percent foul shooter.

Gallinari took six mid-range shots. He made four. That’s right; Gallinari made more mid-range shots than the entire Houston team attempted. Most of those shots came with a Rocket attached to Gallinari’s body.

“I was just trying to use the height advantage in the post and just trying to keep going,” Gallinari said. “The more you move, especially without the ball, the more effective you can be offensively, and that's something … we didn't sustain.”

The Thunder indeed did a lot of standing around. That’s what happens against odd teams. They throw you off your game.

But that’s the beauty of playoff basketball. You see the same team over and over. Defending the wishbone and pitching to a guy swinging for the fences becomes a little less jarring. It’s time for the Thunder to adjust.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›