Sunday, May 03, 2009

We’ve seen the next enemy…

…and he is Houston.

We don’t like Houston, because they really, REALLY pissed us off in 1981 and 1986. Even though that’s been a while and they haven’t done much to aggravate us lately, we remember.

We don’t particularly like the town either, it’s humid, the traffic sucks and the nightlife and culture is pretty lame, although the “scenery” is good.

This version brings what you expect from the Rockets of recent vintage, namely suffocating half court defense and a nondescript offense, with a huge Chinaman in the middle you have to deal with on both ends.

That defense put a pretty good whipping on Portland’s top-ranked offense. They are superb guarding the paint, with Yao obviously being a huge part of that but they are also very active on the interior in general and they retain most of the defensive principles of departed gurus Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau.

Add in defensive stud Chuck Hayes and the interior presence of guys like Landry (who looks to be fully recovered from his near death experience, thankfully), Artest and even Battier and you have a formidable inside defensive team.

We will have an advantage when Yao is out of the game, the career-ending injury to Mutombo will hurt them here as they don’t appear to have anybody who can guard Bynum or especially Pau, we can exploit that if we are patient. Hayes would be useful here, but he is limited enough on offense that they may be afraid to use him much against a high octane team like the Lakers.

Another advantage could be Odom when guarded by Scola, Lamar is just too quick for the Argentine and should look to isolate and go by him when possible to get their defense scrambling.

As good as their interior defense is, they might be even better on the perimeter. Artest and Battier are both in the conversation for the best perimeter defender in the game, and Artest is also strong enough to guard a lot of 4’s. And they are quick rotating to shooters, partially because Yao is so big in the middle and partially just because they have heady players and great defensive principles.

Kobe will get the tag team treatment from Artest and Battier, with the other often available to check somebody else and the underrated Kyle Lowry coming off the bench to defend our 1’s and Sasha. Kobe has to be patient against this team, avoiding the overdribbling that he still slips into on occasion and not forcing too many shots. Not only do they have to double him less than most, but their quick rotations also make it tougher for Fisher/Ariza/etc to get open 3’s.

We will of course want to work inside out and reverse the ball quickly and make the extra pass, but the pure fact is that when you let their halfcourt defense get set this team makes it very tough to get good looks.

And therein lies a key – get stops and get out in transition and good things will happen. They are good at getting back on shooters but Yao can be beaten down the court and attacking them before they are set should lead to some good things, mismatches and odd man breaks leading to open shots. It all starts with getting stops and securing defensive rebounds.

Houston’s offense is predicated on getting the ball inside to Yao and surrounding him with shooters, cutting actions off of Yao and Scola, some Brooks penetration and some Artest freelancing. They don’t really have anybody who can create their own shots very much, so they must be precise in their execution or they can be prone to scoring droughts, which are tough to overcome against a team like the Lakers.

So defending them is all about handling Yao. Nobody can handle him when he catches the ball near the basket, so the bigs must work to try to push him out and not let him catch it deep. This is where Bynum is needed, he is strong enough to make Yao work if he plays smart and with effort. Fronting is another common tactic against Yao, one that our length can make effective at times. And we have had some success in sending doubles at him from unusual angles. The key is to mix it up and help the helper and rotate behind that to get out on shooters – this is a team that can hurt you if you give them open 3’s.

We also have to watch out for Scola, who is a very clever scorer with cutting to the hoop and flashing out for open midrange jumpers. He gave Portland fits and has to be playing with a lot of confidence right now, don’t lose track of him and be careful when you help off of him (I’m talking to you, Lamar).

And be smart in help. They have a lot of shooters, helping off the wrong man or being slow in rotations will burn you here.

The wild card is Artest. He can sabotage their whole offense by overdribbling and firing up contested shots. He can make the 3 if he is open and gets his feet set, but you can goad him into taking bad shots pretty easily, and when he does the other guys start to stand around and their whole offense grinds to a halt. Stay in front of him (easier said than done with his strength) and force him to help and he will make some bad decisions for you.

They are also a team that hits the offensive glass hard, and given our struggles there in the first three games against Utah and this has to be a point of emphasis. Landry is almost a clone of Paul Millsap, who gave us fits in the last series. Make them work for their points instead of giving them easy putbacks.

Put it all together and this is a very dangerous team who will be hard to pull away from in games, their defense is just too good for that. But if you play good defense yourself you can get some separation as they are not good enough offensively to beat you in a shootout. Push the pace and execute and you will bring this one home, be lazy and undisciplined on D and impatient on O and it will be a dogfight.

I’d like to see us win in 5, but will be happy with any result that doesn’t involve a game 7. Win the first two at home and you can put them on their heels and create some doubt given the regular season results, let them get one of those and you’re in for a long two weeks, so the key is to come out of the gates swinging and don’t give them hope.

And F you, Ralph Sampson.

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