Despite initial skepticism, the small-ball Houston Rockets are winning and a big reason why is Robert Covington
Going 4-2 in their last six games, the Houston Rockets along with their plethora of wings have been displaying an improved and rejuvenated defensive focus, along with an offensive scheme that prioritizes their strengths. It might be time to accept their system as effective.
The Rockets, without Russell Westbrook on the second night of a back-to-back, lose to the Suns, then go on to fall to the Jazz off of a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Bojan Bogdanovic, who had made only one other shot the entire night. That might clear things up about the losses.
In their other four games, the Rockets bested the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, and the Jazz, not to mention a rout of the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center. What matters most are the wins over the .500 or better teams, especially with the considerable size advantage that those teams pose to the “Pocket-Rockets.”
While many of Houston’s players that fit in at the 4 or 5 don’t match the traditional physique, their wingspan and defensive communication make them formidable foes on the defensive end.
Further pushed by Mike D’Antoni following Houston’s dealing Clint Capela to the Hawks, and the acquisition of Robert Covington from Minnesota, the Rockets set their system in stone. Their already switch-dependent defense became far more effective, as the omission of traditional bigs allowed for seamless interchangeability between assignments.
Also important is the wingspan of some of Houston’s recent acquisitions. Robert Covington clocks in at 7-foot-1, Jeff Green at 7-foot-1, and Bruno Caboclo at 7-foot-6. The Rockets, while not necessarily tall, have length galore.
Their first test came against the Lakers, which beforehand was met with every plausible joke in the book, and while the Rockets did not necessarily stifle Anthony Davis, they showed that their highly-stigmatized scheme had some basis. Without a big to clog the lane on offense, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were given golden opportunities to drive to the rim, making their shot attempts and passes to open shooters that much easier.
On defense, obviously forfeiting size for versatility, the Rockets opted to play the Lakers’ bigs in ways that made Los Angeles reconsider their post-heavy offense. Regularly, Houston would front the post, double team off the catch, or come in for weak-side blocks. While it was not always successful, it forced the Lakers to re-think their offensive scheme, leading to a less efficient scoring output.
Against the Celtics, looking to close out the first half of the season on a high-note, Houston depended on their stars to carry them to victory, with Harden and Westbrook combining for 78 points on the night. The immense spacing caused by Houston’s unorthodox gameplan allowed for them to put up 45 attempts from beyond the 3-point line.
Though they converted on only 29 percent of those attempts, their perimeter-centric offense forced the Celtics, as it did the Lakers, to spread their defense thin across the half-court. The spacing made for more open shots, and more drives to the rim, Houston’s bread and butter.
Looking to take the tie-breaker on the 1-1 season series against Utah, the Rockets walked into Salt Lake City with intention. A win would not only give the Rockets the tie-breaker, but it would also make them even with Utah in the Western Conference standings.
Seven-foot-one Rudy Gobert, who regularly gives teams grief in the paint on both ends of the floor, had difficulty playing so far outside of the paint and failed to match Houston’s speed on the fast-break, leading to many easy transition buckets. Finishing the night with 12 points, six rebounds, and two blocks, shooting 42 percent from the field, Gobert was out of his element.
What ties these victories together is the insertion of Robert Covington into the Rockets’ system. Covington is the ideal player for Mike D’Antoni; he has no qualms with letting it fly from deep, he can be a lockdown defender, and in a system where he may be the tallest on the floor, he sends back a fair number of shots.
In his six games with Houston, Robert Covington has tallied 14 blocks and seven steals. His presence on the defensive end cannot be understated, he embodies the player that Houston needs.
With multiple post-deadline singings, Houston’s playable roster goes 12 men deep, priming them for impressive post-season depth. Being able to switch assignments with ease, combined with the re-invigorated drive shown in the last six games, the Rockets are inching closer to solidifying their stance as serious title contenders.
Looking to push their win streak to four, the Houston Rockets will attempt to defend homecourt against the 17-39 New York Knicks on Monday at Toyota Center.