The Rockets’ Defense in Game 5

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Game 5 of the San Antonio Spurs’ series against the Houston Rockets was probably their most important game of the season so far.  The Spurs had surrendered home court advantage to the Rockets when they lost game 1 by 27 points. They recovered well by winning games 2 and 3, but failed to convert this momentum to a series controlling 3-1 lead by dropping game 4 in Houston. At 2-2, game 5 was vitally important. Due to the Rockets’ high-variance offensive style, giving them two chances to clinch the series would have been incredibly dangerous for the Spurs. While game 5 was not technically a must win for the Spurs, it may have been the closest thing to it. For a Spurs team whose offense would stall during games throughout the second half of the season, maintaining offensive pressure was vital. In some areas they were successful, in others they struggled, but ultimately, much of the game was decided by how the Rockets defended the Spurs not-oft used small ball lineups.

Before his injury, Nene was playing great defense for the Rockets. Throughout the series he led the team with a stout defensive rating of 94.3 Points Per 100 Possessions. As Nene sustained his injury early in game 4, Clint Capela has had to step up in the past two games as Houston’s defensive stopper in the paint, and stepped up he has. Capela had a defensive rating of 93.4 PP/100 in games 4 and 5, second to only Nene before he was injured. In fact, Capela has had to play over half of his minutes in the past two games as the only big on the court, as Nene’s injury forced the Rockets to play small for larger stretches of time. Capela also led all Rocket players in net rating over the past two games, minimum of 10 minutes per game. The Rockets outscored the Spurs by 21.4 PP/100 with Capela on the floor in games 4 and 5.

Capela’s rim protection has given the Spurs a bit of trouble, as he’s averaging 2.8 blocks a game in the series. When he is in the paint, drives from the Spurs that would normally be close-range shot attempts end up being kicked out to a corner. His defensive presence has had a noticeable impact in the Spurs’ decision making in attacking the Rocket’s small ball lineups in the paint.

The Spurs did pressure Houston on the offensive glass all game, however, even with Capela on the floor. Throughout the regular season, Capela grabbed 25.0% of all available defensive rebounds. On Tuesday night, however, he only grabbed 20.5%. The burden of defensive rebounding for the Rockets is not Capela’s alone to bear, though, and every member of the Rockets had a lower defensive rebounding percentage on Tuesday than they did in the regular season, with the exception of Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza.

Grabbing a defensive rebound or forcing a turnover are the two ways to create a defensive stop in basketball (steals show up as opponents turnovers in the box score as well). While the Rockets grabbed more defensive rebounds in game 5 than the Spurs did, the Spurs kept possessions alive throughout the game with 18 offensive rebounds, almost double their regular season average of 10 per game. They also committed a half number of turnovers than the Rockets did, resulting in less empty possessions for the Spurs on what was a poor shooting night overall for them.

While Capela’s rim protection was solid, ultimately the Spurs were able to overcome a night where they shot worse that the Rockets almost across the board with a huge effort on the offensive glass and a limited number of turnovers. With the margin of the game as thin as it was, and with the Rockets’ offensive prowess in transition, one or two less offensive rebounds or one or two more turnovers could have cost the Spurs the game. The Spurs will need more of the same in both metrics on Thursday, especially if Kawhi Leonard is limited or sitting out the game entirely, if they hope to have a chance to steal a series clinching game 6.

All stats obtained from nba.com/stats

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