In a battle between two of the NBA’s smallest teams, the Houston Rockets defeated the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night behind a combined 78 points from their All-Star guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook. When he’s in the mood, as he was in the third quarter last night, Harden is nearly impossible to stop one-on-one – his step-back three is legitimately unguardable and, since he doesn’t need a screen to get it off, defenders are all too often left on an island.
On most nights, Harden will almost certainly get his own, and while it may have been too much to ask any of the Celtics’ defenders to do much of a better job on the 2018 MVP, Boston’s inability to defend Russell Westbrook and the rest of this Rockets team from attacking the basket was a big reason why they weren’t able to extend the wining streak to 8.
After an 11-point first half, Harden exploded in the third quarter, going deep into his bag to conjure up his usual platter of step-back threes and free throws. He finished with 19 points in the period and, perhaps more importantly, opened up opportunities for the rest of the team to take advantage. This new-look Rockets team has capable, high-volume shooters everywhere making it hard for defenders to help since no one wants to surrender an open three to a P.J. Tucker or Robert Covington. When Harden’s cooking, that leaves the option of helping off Russell Westbrook, usually the one non-shooter on the court. But Westbrook is in the middle of one of the best stretches in his career. In his last 14 games, the former Thunder guard is averaging 34.0 points on 53.0% (!!!) shooting to go along with 8.1 boards and 7.6 dimes, and has looked like the perfect back court mate to Harden by attacking any closeout and finishing well at the rim.
Since it’s so hard to help off any of the Rockets, matching up against them defensively often largely comes down to one-on-one defense. In guarding Westbrook, much of the work is essentially staying with his first step. Russell has one of the quickest ones in the league, but if you can stay with him there, life gets much easier. In the first half, the Celtics did a good job of doing exactly that. On this drive below, Jaylen Brown does a great job of being physical and staying with Westbrook as he makes the initial decision to drive, before managing to get his hand up and block the shot.
Westbrook’s counter to that, though, is to build up a full head of steam before getting to the defender. The clip below is after a made basket by the Celtics, and the cameraman doesn’t even have time to focus on Kemba Walker before Westbrook is already downhill attacking Tatum. You can see him motioning to his teammates to speed the game up, and that’s exactly what he did.
Here, again after a made basket, he just gets Brown with his first step, and from there it’s a wrap.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Rockets finished the night shooting a whopping 72.0% at the rim. Despite the lack of a traditional rim protector, the Celtics have done a fairly decent job of protecting the basket thanks to the athleticism of players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum along with the underrated rim protection of Daniel Theis. On the year, they rank 9th in the league, allowing opponents to shoot around 62.0% at the hoop.
But against Houston’s five-out set, Theis wasn’t able to stay around the rim, and the Rockets took advantage. In fact, one of Celtics’ biggest strengths this year has been the fact that don’t allow many shots at the rim to begin with, allowing just 32.7% of their field goals in that area, good for 6th in the NBA.
The Rockets have also mastered the dark art of foul hunting and managed to use the bonus to get free points at the line. Harden is well-known for his acting on the court, and in total, Houston was fouled an incredible 17 times on shooting attempts compared to the Celtics’ 9, including 4 on three-point attempts. The Rockets finished the game having shot 17 more free throws than Boston.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the Rockets’ stunning deal to ship away Clint Capela and go all-in on small-ball has been Russell Westbrook. With an open lane and shooters everywhere, Westbrook is back at his best, and was a huge reason why the Rockets managed to end Boston’s 7-game winning streak.