Rockets and Blazers at the Rim

Every year, the NBA playoffs treats us to some awesome battles. In just one week, we’ve already enjoyed Kevin Durant vs. Tony Allen, Chris Paul vs. Stephen Curry, and Troy Daniels vs. Twitter1.

However, many of my favorite matchups aren’t about individuals–they’re the ones we get when two teams with clashing styles go head-to-head. When both sides excel at what they do, who can find an edge? In this post, I’d like to focus on one such battle being fought between the Rockets and Blazers.

We’ve heard a lot of discussion about how these teams use (or neglect) the mid-range jump shot. This post isn’t about that. While I could write plenty of things about the brilliance of LaMarcus Aldridge, I think the more interesting story takes place within a few feet of the Rockets’ basket.

It’s no secret that Houston likes to attack the rim. A large portion of their offense is predicated on getting into the paint for layups and kickouts. During the regular season, the Rockets took a whopping 43.9% of their shots within 5 feet of the basket, good for second in the league2. They made 60.1% of these attempts, ranking them 8th. The Rockets also led the league in free throw attempt rate, largely a product of them persistent assaults on the rim.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Terry Stotts built a conservative defense meant to encourage mid-range jumpers over more efficient shots. Center Robin Lopez finished among the league’s best rim protectors, allowing opponents to shoot just 42.5% on 10.3 shots at the rim defended per game. As a team, the Blazers held opponents to a mere 55.2% within 5 feet, placing them behind only the Pacers and Thunder. They also ranked fifth in the league in preventing opponents from getting to the free throw line. Although Portland’s overall defense finished close to league average, it seems like their strengths are well-suited to neutralize Houston’s attack.

So far, this battle has more or less been a draw. The Rockets are getting a TON of shots within 5 feet–an absurd 49.7 per game3, up from 35.2 during the regular season (Portland allowed 32.4 per game). A large portion of this increase has come from Dwight Howard, who’s more than doubled his shot attempts inside the restricted area from 7.7 to 16. However, Houston’s only shooting 53.7% within 5 feet, well below their season average. Credit for this goes to Lopez and Aldridge, who together are defending 33.3 shots at the rim per game, including 5 combined blocks.

Furthermore, the Blazers have held the Rockets well below their regular season FTA rate, despite their use of Hack-a-Howard. A big factor here has been Portland’s wings smartly refusing to swipe at the ball on Rockets’ drives. Instead of giving up free throws, they’re forcing Houston to make tough layups against the Blazers big men.

The Rockets’ biggest victory in the paint has been offensive rebounding. After grabbing 27.4% of their misses during the regular season, they’ve managed to pull down an impressive 36% of them against Portland. A lot of this is a byproduct of the pressure the Rockets’ penetration puts on Lopez and Aldridge. When they have to leave their man to contest a shot, the other Blazers have done a poor job of rotating to box out. Dwight Howard and Omer Asik are both grabbing offensive rebounds at a rate of 5.6 per 36 minutes. Part of the reason the Rockets have produced so many close shots is that they often get more than one in a single possession.

Even though the Blazers have taken away some of what the Rockets do best, the overall results have been neutral. After scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, Houston is scoring 108.3 in the first three games of this series. The Blazers had a league average defense, so if you knew absolutely nothing about how the teams matched up, you’d expect exactly what we’ve observed–the Rockets scoring at their normal rate.

Sometimes, the process is a lot more interesting than the results.

1. Don’t forget Lance Stephenson vs. Evan Turner!

2. League average was 35.3%. The 76ers led with 44.2%.

3. It’s worth noting that two of the games went into overtime. But the Rockets still average 46.4 shots within 5 feet per 48 minutes.

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