Sunday, January 16, 2011

Houston Rockets 112 Atlanta Hawks 106



Hoopdata boxscore


Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR% TO%
HOU 93
30.6 14
ATL 94 1.128 58

Sometimes a bad defensive performance has most to do with the other team's good offensive performance. Houston being a team inherently capable of taking advantage of Atlanta's defensive weaknesses--on the perimeter, in transition, and on the defensive glass--the inability of Atlanta's guards to stay with Aaron Brooks in the third and fourth quarters, Houston's 20 fast break points, their 21 points off Atlanta turnovers, and their 11 offensive rebounds couldn't be classified as surprises. Houston simply did a better job of attacking Atlanta's defensive weaknesses than Atlanta did in attacking Houston's defensive weaknesses. The difference, on both ends, was Josh Smith.

The Rockets appeared to understand that the best way to limit Josh Smith's defensive impact is to attack him directly and Luis Scola* was skilled enough to exploit Smith's (relative) defensive weakness. On the offensive end, Smith was a leading cause of Atlanta's inability to keep pace with Houston's offense in the second half, using six of his eight field goal attempts on jump shots and making just one of those jumpers. This was in sharp contrast to Smith's excellent first half, when he scored 15 points and took nine of his 11 shots from inside the paint. Smith did not attempt a single shot inside the paint over the final 14 minutes of the game.

*As well as, to a lesser extent, Jordan Hill and Patrick Patterson.

Smith's questionable second-half shot selection wasn't entirely his fault. Late in the third quarter, the Hawks appeared to run a baseline out-of-bounds play (with two seconds left in the shot clock) designed for Smith to catch the ball coming off a curl 20-feet from the basket. And, again, one must acknowledge the lack of options Larry Drew has, especially given the absence of Marvin Williams, when Smith plays to his weaknesses.

Atlanta's weaknesses, more than atypically poor play, were the story of the night. Drew's limited defensive options were best exposed by Aaron Brooks in the fourth quarter. Without a player capable of either staying in front of Brooks or sticking close enough to him to challenge his jump shots, Drew went to a 2-3 zone. The results of the zone just drove home that Atlanta's struggles were of a result more of bad defensive players than bad defensive play. On the first zone possession, Jamal Crawford lost Kyle Lowry and Lowry made an uncontested corner 3. On the next possession, Jordan Hill posted up Mike Bibby and made an essentially uncontested turnaround jumper over Bibby. On subsequent possessions, Brooks either split the aged Atlanta guards at the top of the zone, or Houston moved the ball side-to-side until Scola or Hill could post up Joe Johnson. Johnson shouldn't be asked to guard Scola anymore than he should be asked to guard Brooks but he surely will as long as he plays alongside Mike Bibby and/or Jamal Crawford.

Not that unreasonable defensive assignments fully excuse Johnson's play on the defensive end. He somehow managed not to grab a single defensive rebound in 37 minutes of play. Mo Evans achieved the same ignominious non-feat in 33 minutes. With Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford grabbing just three rebounds between them in 57 combined minutes and Damien Wilkins (who might have deserved some more minutes at the 3 when the Hawks went zone late) joining Johnson and Evans in being shutout on the defensive glass in the five minutes he played the Hawks were dangerously over-reliant on Smith (11 defensive rebounds) and Al Horford (8 defensive rebounds) once a Houston shot went up.

Larry Drew:
"We just didn’t play with any kind of physicality and we didn’t take anything away. We allowed them to back us into the paint and score easily. We forgot kind of who we are. We have not been a team starting games thinking we can outscore people. Our mindset has always been that it starts with our defense."
Joe Johnson:
"More so than anything just the energy and effort that it takes to put into a game like this against a hard-fighting Rockets team, we didn’t have that. Even when we got the lead in the second half, we relaxed and they got back in it."
Al Horford:
"I think the biggest thing was we were not fully committed on the defensive end like we’ve been playing lately. That was a little discouraging but we have to regroup and get ready for Monday."
Mo Evans:
"It was just a matter of our offense was our worst defense. Our shot selection kind of led to their easy transition points and that was a recipe for disaster."
The Hawks shot 58 eFG% from the field and were one-half field goal shy of making exactly 50% of their field goal attempts. Given Atlanta's poor transition defense and the speed of Brooks and Lowry, any missed shot was an invitation to the Rockets to run.

Kris Willis on defense:
The defensive effort closely resembled the effort that was on display in Los Angeles and Toronto most recently. The difference was that Atlanta found a way to win those games. They weren't so lucky in this one and the lack of execution on the defensive end is hardly a recipe for success. It is only one game and I am sure there will be others like it over the course of the remainder of the season, but it also begs to be reminded that every game counts and with how tight the Eastern Conference standings are at the moment one game could be difference in having home court advantage or having to go on the road in the first round of the playoffs.

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