From 2004-2008, now-Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni put a spin on the game of basketball when he implemented the "Seven Seconds or Less" offence during his time with the Phoenix Suns.
A fast-paced scheme that heavily relied on 3-point shooting and floor spacing, it was something basketball had never seen before. He was a pioneer for what the NBA would eventually become today as a number of teams utilize a similar offence.
Behind D'Antoni, the Rockets abide by that playstyle more than any other team in the league, really only looking to shoot 3s, layups and free throws. They've experimented playing small, going with five players around the perimeter that can all knock down the 3-ball, but were still loyal to playing their talented young centre Clint Capela.
With Houston's move at the trade deadline, sending Capela to the Hawks in a monster four team trade that returned 3-and-D forward Robert Covington, D'Antoni - and general manager Daryl Morey - have made their intentions clear on breaking the boundaries of basketball.
We'll call it "6'7 or less", if you will.
Trading Capela showed the Rockets want to take their playstyle to the next level. They're going to play small, they're going to play fast, they're going to shoot the 3 and they're going to try to force opponents to adjust.
Houston was not eased into this new approach, going head-to-head with the Los Angeles Lakers and one of the most dominant inside forces in the NBA in Anthony Davis right away. It was like taking a test they didn't study for, yet still came out with an A.
Their starting five of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Eric Gordon, Danuel House and PJ Tucker marked their tallest player (House) at 6'6. Newly acquired Covington was the tallest player that stepped foot on the floor for Houston at 6'7. Harden (6'5) had to take the jump ball, and it'll bring a smile to your face to watch.
Rockets vs. Lakers jump ball:- SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 7, 2020
James Harden vs. JaVale McGee pic.twitter.com/uFC01scxsM
But all jokes aside, the Rockets made it work.
On offence, they played with five players around the perimeter, giving their All-Star backcourt of Harden and Westbrook plenty of space to attack the rim, completely surrounded by shooters. As two of the best guards in the league at getting to the basket or passing off of the gravity they attract from opposing defences, surrounding that duo with nothing but 3-point bombers should give opposing teams headaches.
Westbrook put together one of his best games of the season as a result, scoring 41 points on 17-for-28 shooting from the field and 12-for-16 in the paint, according to NBA stats.
It made the Lakers uncomfortable on defence, forcing JaVale McGee to defend away from the rim, which he doesn't typically do. It only took two Rockets offensive possessions into the game to showcase the affects of this scheme.
Granted it is in transition, but typically, McGee's man would be working his way to the paint or the block. This time, it's House who's stopping on the perimeter for a 3-pointer as the Lakers big man closes out late, and this wasn't the only occasion we saw something like that occur in that game.
Houston's small-ball forced Los Angeles to switch up their gameplan and rotation, too. Reserve centre Dwight Howard, who has revitalized himself this season, averages about 20 minutes per game. With the Rockets going small, head coach Frank Vogel only played Howard four minutes in Thursday's meeting. Just by playing small, the Rockets took one of L.A.'s strongest bench assets essentially out of the game.
The question was never how it would work on offence, though. It was defence and rebounding that was called into question.
Davis had a solid game, scoring 32 points shooting 14-for-21 from the field with little resistence when he got into the paint. The Lakers as a whole, as you would expect, fared well in the painted area, scoring 62 points. Without a true rim protector, Houston is going to allow a lot of points in the restricted area, but maybe that's all a part of the plan.
The Rockets look to shoot as many 3s as possible because they view it as a more valuable and efficient shot than anything other than a layup/dunk. While defensively they certainly aren't looking to give teams easy layups/dunks, maybe they're inviting opponents post up smaller guys like Tucker, Covington or Westbrook to make teams take more 2s than 3s.
They Lakers only made nine 3s to Houston's 19 in the contest, and they did attempt more than their season average, which debunks that theory a bit. But it's a miniscule one-game sample size and certainly something to look for moving forward.
As far as rebounding goes, Tucker is fantastic on the boards and Westbrook just might be the best rebounding guard in NBA history. Despite their lack of size, they only lost the battle of the boards 38-37, and as long as Westbrook is playing they should still find a way to have a fighting chance on the glass.
But Westbrook is one of the keys to making this work. Without him as a defender and rebounder the gameplan takes a hit, as you could see in the team's blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns the following night. They were out-rebounded 51-29 and while it's a list of excuses, they were on a back-to-back after a massive win, shot 11-for-48 from 3 and caught Kelly Oubre Jr. on the best night of his career. Games like that happen in the NBA regular season.
Houston's lack of depth makes this strategy risky, but they plan to stick to it and see how it works. D'Antoni stated after the Lakers game that the guys have bought into it, but admitted that first win against a strong opponent helped a lot.
"Any time you try something different, these guys got to believe in it," D'Antoni said after the win. "This (win) helps a lot. If you come in here and get spanked and we're all little, it's like, 'Oh, maybe we can't do this.' They're fired up. As a coach, you get scared to try something different. I thought it would work. I don't know why it wouldn't. They proved it did."
As hilarious evidence of the players buying into it, Tucker embraced a joke that went viral on the Internet after the trade.
The Rockets are 1-1 with their new strategy, but 1-0 with all their components. They'll face another tough test on Monday as they take on another one of the league's best bigs in All-Star centre Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz.
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