The Rockets Tried Small Ball. Did It Work? Well, They Beat the Lakers

Written by on February 7, 2020

LOS ANGELES — Amongst his many pregame duties at any time when the Houston Rockets are on the highway, Tony Nila scrawls every participant’s nickname on a strip of masking tape and affixes it to the highest of that participant’s locker. Nila, the group’s gear supervisor, refers to Russell Westbrook as “Why Not.” Tyson Chandler goes by “OG.” P.J. Tucker is “Champagne Papi.”

Earlier than the Rockets confronted the Lakers on Thursday evening at Staples Middle, Nila added a brand new participant to his checklist: Robert Covington, a 6-foot-7 ahead whom the Rockets acquired this week earlier than the N.B.A.’s trade deadline. The identify on Covington’s strip of masking tape was simple: “Rob.”

Its simplicity, although, ran counter to the whole lot that Covington’s presence represented: the most recent and maybe boldest experiment in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s lengthy historical past of doing funky stuff on the basketball courtroom. The Rockets are going small — actually small — and never even D’Antoni is bound the way it will pan out.

“We don’t know,” D’Antoni stated. “I do really feel that that is one of the simplest ways to go, and we’ll see. We’ll modify the opposite means if it isn’t.”

D’Antoni started toying with the idea final week when Clint Capela, who was then the group’s beginning middle, was sidelined with a foot damage. D’Antoni shifted Tucker, who’s 6 foot 5, to the middle place. The Rockets proceeded to win three in a row with out Capela, then traded him to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday as a part of a four-team deal — the identical deal wherein the Rockets landed Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Earlier than his group performed the Lakers, D’Antoni described the sport as a “massive take a look at” and “one we’re not fairly prepared for but.” He was apprehensive about how his new-look rotation would deal with LeBron James, who’s a slab of chiseled granite, and Anthony Davis, who’s a redwood. D’Antoni was beginning a bunch of shrubs by comparability: nobody taller than 6 foot 6.

“It’s like taking a take a look at, and also you haven’t studied for it but,” D’Antoni stated. “In order that’s not good.”

The Rockets should have crammed on the final minute. They got here away from their 121-111 victory over the Lakers feeling rather more reassured concerning the new course they had been taking.

“Any time you attempt one thing completely different, these guys have gotten to imagine in it,” D’Antoni stated as he gestured towards the locker room behind him. “This helps. This helps loads. As a result of in case you are available right here and get spanked, we’re all little, and it’s, ‘Oh, perhaps we will’t do that.’ In order that they’re fired up, and we’ll maintain attempting.”

There’s something refreshing a few contender coming to the arduous realization that its method just isn’t working and altering course — and doing so in dramatic style. For D’Antoni and Normal Supervisor Daryl Morey, that meant discovering a means to assist Westbrook do what he does greatest: produce off the dribble. When Capela was on the ground, Westbrook usually discovered his path to the basket impeded. Capela spent a whole lot of time within the paint, and so did his defenders. It created site visitors for Westbrook to navigate.

“We’ve bought Russ, who’s a novel expertise,” D’Antoni stated. “And I feel we have to play to his skills.”

Towards the Lakers, D’Antoni stationed 5 gamers on the perimeter — a scheme that dragged defenders to the 3-point line, and Westbrook had seams to the ring, scoring 41 factors whereas capturing 17 of 28 from the sphere. Teammates loved all of the open house, too. Late within the second half, on a designed play that caught the eye of the analytics gurus who run the Twitter account Positive Residual, the Rockets’ Danuel Home Jr. slipped a display screen close to the highest of the important thing, and Covington whipped the ball to him for a dunk.

For D’Antoni, it was a sport that fulfilled his imaginative and prescient in different methods. He noticed a scrambling protection that prompted issues for the Lakers, who had been restricted to 18 factors within the fourth quarter. He watched his group sink 19 of 42 3-pointers. And he delighted within the seamless addition of Covington, who was Rockets’ most versatile participant in his debut.

“He did a whole lot of issues,” stated D’Antoni, whose group improved to 33-18 forward of its sport in opposition to the Phoenix Suns on Friday evening.

Covington got here off the bench and performed terrific protection — he blocked a shot by Davis on a crucial possession within the fourth quarter — and sank two 3-pointers within the ultimate three minutes. He completed with 14 factors, eight rebounds and 4 assists simply hours after becoming a member of the group in Los Angeles.

“My teammates put me in the appropriate place,” Covington stated, “and I simply did what I used to be advised.”

D’Antoni, lengthy celebrated for his creativity, is aware of that his newest experiment is of venture. He was requested whether or not he had thought-about going with a small-ball lineup earlier in his profession.

“It depended how lengthy my contract was,” he stated. “And now it’s like, ‘O.Ok.!’”

He was joking about the truth that his contract with the Rockets expires after the season, and that maybe he doesn’t have a lot to lose if this complete factor is a flop.

To be clear, there are causes to be skeptical: Can Tucker, who’s 34, and his undersized teammates face up to a number of extra months of punishment from opposing publish gamers? Can the Rockets make sufficient 3-pointers to offset the layups they appear sure to surrender to beefier opponents on the different finish? And may they actually count on to play this fashion over the grind of a seven-game playoff sequence? The novelty will put on off, and good groups will modify.

However additionally it is true that the Rockets weren’t going wherever as previously constructed. So why not attempt one thing new? Appears easy sufficient.

“We simply have a bizarre type of group,” D’Antoni stated, “and we’re attempting to determine find out how to play them the most effective we will, and that is it.”

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