After a precipitous fall to 1-16, a seven-game win streak got the Houston Rockets halfway to .500. Houston became the first team in the four major American sports to win more than five consecutive games after a losing streak of 15 or more… So at least this Rockets team is historic?
There are a number of factors in the Rockets’ latest run, but let’s dive into a few.
Bigger Isn’t Better
The most notable difference on the floor for the Houston Rockets has been when head coach Stephen Silas went to three-guard lineups with a single “big.” While analytics fans on Twitter have pointed it out all season, the key to unlocking Christian Wood has been very clearly clearing out the room inside the perimeter. Both in isolation and coming off of the screen, what Wood does that separates him from his peers is vary his approach. When he is in isolation along the perimeter, as the lone big he is bigger and able to finish over help-side defenders, can hit the mid-range pull up if they’re available early enough to take a charge, and can hit the three if the defense sags off of him completely.
As a roller? Once he’s set a screen, the spacing of small lineups allows him to roll to all three levels: the rim, the midrange, and pop to three. In each spot on the floor, he has room to operate because the other “big” is outside the three-point line, and thus any helping defender will get passed out of rotation.
This move began with an injury to the recently acquired Daniel Theis, but it was revealed in a Tim MacMahon exclusive that there were other forces at play in selecting rotations. It’s been about a quarter of the season, and it makes a lot of sense that the “two-big” experiment would get a 20-game sample. Theis and Wood are both unique bigs, and neither has played in a two-big system before. If it was going to work, it needed the time to flush out the kinks. Especially when the bench big coming in, Alperen Şengün is a 19-year-old kid.
However, the single big lineups have also opened up the floor for “Al P” Şengün. With the room to operate, especially with a few injuries in the backcourt, Şengün has become a “point Center” for the second unit. He is orchestrating movement and creating looks for his teammates with his combination of ball-fake-flair and brute strength. When playing alongside other Centers, Şengün looked like he could grow into being a starter. But with the space of less big men? Şengün looks like he could be a star.
Why doesn’t everyone do this?
Broadly speaking, the issue with single big lineups in the NBA will always be rim protection. But the Rockets rank 12th in blocks per game and 19th in rebounds per game. While neither number is impressive, they’re certainly higher than the 8-16 Rockets sit in the standings. Houston is in the bottom five in the league in points allowed per game, but the smaller lineup has allowed for them to play at the league’s fastest pace. When shifting the look at Houston’s defense, Houston is 18th in points allowed per 100 possessions… which again, is noticeably higher than they rank in wins.
This is in large part because Houston utilizes “tweeners” in a way that few other teams can. Jae’Sean Tate and KJ Martin have used their respective talents to overcome being shorter than their opponents. Jae’Sean is tough and a hustler, KJ Martin is explosive and crafty, and neither of them runs out of energy. Further, while they attack the spots from different angles than traditional bigs, Tate and Martin score in the same spots on the floor as modern Power Forwards. The defense has to deal with them on offense as if they are big because of how they attack the rim without the ball while simultaneously covering them in space.
All Gas, With Breaks
Houston has won seven straight basketball games, but it’s worth mentioning this has not been the most difficult stretch of their schedule. Houston played Brooklyn, New Orleans, Orlando, Oklahoma City twice, Charlotte, and Chicago. Only three of those seven wins are against teams with winning records, and five are against teams with a negative net rating. And while Brooklyn was a win over a team with a winning record and that ranks sixth in net rating, the Nets were on the second night of a back-to-back, without Kevin Durant (and Kyrie Irving, for whatever that’s worth.
The Houston Rockets are by-and-large beating teams that are not good. That’s not something to get too excited over, but it is Houston doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And that’s new. In the Rockets’ 15-game losing streak (yes, if you’re new here, they had one of those, too), Houston lost eight games against teams that are currently .500 or worse. Winning this stretch of games, even if they’re supposed to, is an improvement. And it’s one they’re making without their best players.
Aside from sitting John Wall all season long, the Houston Rockets lost Jalen Green in the first half of the Chicago game to start the winning streak. His backcourt mate Kevin Porter Jr. has been in and out of the lineup for the latter half of the streak. Houston has injury problems but continues to find impactful contributions from a number of unlikely sources. Eric Gordon is playing like his younger self, Jae’Sean Tate exploded for 32 points in Oklahoma, and the most unlikely two-way player is killing it.
In late September, Garrison “Gary Bird” Mathews was cut by the Boston Celtics. Three weeks later, the Houston Rockets signed him to a two-way contract with their affiliate the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Mathews got the call up in mid-November and saw his first action for Houston as a reserve. In 27 minutes against Chicago, the start of Green’s absence, and the Houston win-streak, Mathews scored 12 points on 6 shots.
The next game? Mathews started. He had 20 points in 38 minutes and led the Rockets to a win over Charlotte. Thus, the legend began.
As Mathews has continued to start, the Rockets have continued to win. He’s had double-digit scoring nights in each Houston win, is shooting nearly 49-percent from three as a starter, and has become the heartbeat of the Houston Rockets defense.
Garrison Mathews is the classic “out of nowhere” story. He is from a small town in central Tennessee, set scoring records at A-Sun’s Lipscomb in Nashville, and spent time in and out of the league with Washington after going undrafted. Now? The question is when, not if, Houston converts his deal from a two-way to a full-time NBA deal.
Mathews has iconic moments, but no series of them down the stretch of the win over Brooklyn Gary Bird was everywhere. He was prodding the ball out from beneath James Harden, he was stripping the ball for a breakaway dunk, and he was, miraculously, still open in the corner for three.
One Man Gün Squad
Alperen Şengün has emerged as a potential cornerstone for the rebuilding of Houston Rockets. He has only started two games, and Rockets fans lament the idea that he plays just 18 minutes a night, but Al P has demonstrated that he has the footwork, touch, and ball sense to find his way on the floor. He finds space as a roll man on screens and dribble handoffs as he breaks away from the action, but is able to flip his hips and heels and take advantage of sleeping defenders.
What is the most fascinating about watching Şengün play is he is, per traditional athletic measures, usually the least athletic guy on the floor. He is a six-foot-nine center with tree trunk legs and a league-average vertical. He doesn’t have particularly long arms or an eye-popping first step. But, aside from being unbelievably flexible and nimble, he is brilliantly methodical. Every time he bends his hips out for a little bit of an extra bump on a screen, it’s on purpose. Whenever he looks off the defense in a particular direction, it’s on purpose. Every time he slightly resets his non-pivot foot, it’s on purpose.
Şengün operating from the top of the key drives the offense. The Houston Rockets lack a traditional point guard (with the exception of veteran reserve DJ Augustin). But Sengun initiates offense as selflessly as any pass-first point guard his age would. He forces defense out of the rotation with his eyes and shoulders before punishing them back across their coverage. The top of the key has also been where Şengün is the most comfortable attacking from. He attacks the basket head-on and uses a series of up-fakes and the rim to keep defenders’ hands off of his array of hook shots.
While Nikola Jokic is solidly into what may be a back-to-back MVP campaign, saying Şengün could develop into that type of center seems unfair. But in truth, Şengün does things with the basketball that manipulate a defense in a way Jokic could not at 19-years-old. Jokic’s rookie season was a 10-point, 7-rebound, and 2.4 assist- campaign filled with similar head-fakes, selflessness, and creativity. Jokic played nearly 22 minutes per game and shot a similar split to Şengün.
Season of Runs
After winning seven in a row, the Houston Rockets dropped two games. With Green and Porter Jr. still out, it felt like another streak was beginning as the Rockets entered the fourth quarter with Atlanta down 13 and out of answers. Then, KJ Martin, Alperen Şengün, and DJ Augustin played every minute of the fourth to finish on a victorious 44-25 run. Augustin’s 16 points propelled Houston on the scoreboard, but his aggressive nature was contagious as the entire Rockets roster was scraping their way to the road win.
The game served as a reminder for Houston Rockets fans of what this team can be, both now and in the future. Eric Gordon finished with 32 points and Augustin added 22 points off of the bench. But as a backcourt, they played harmoniously in a way that Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. project to play as well. Gordon and Augustin both dominated from beyond the arc and by attacking the basket. As Green and Porter Jr. develop as shooters (they are 19 and 21, respectively), the same offensive system will open up even better for them. Green and Porter Jr. are craftier on their way to the basket, and Green is as explosive as anyone in the NBA. The Atlanta game was a great showcase of Houston’s veterans as trade assets, but it also provided a glimpse of the future.
As Green and Porter Jr. get healthy and work their ways back into the lineup the Houston Rockets will likely hit a skid. They’re both young and will take minutes away from the old guard that has held down the fort in their absence. But that doesn’t mean the Green pick of the Porter Jr. trade “failed.” Houston is one of the youngest teams in NBA history, and the yo-yo-ing of wins and losses will be a throughline of this season’s story.
Even the most stringent of stat watchers can’t hyperfocus on their points or assists per game. The growth of the Houston Rockets, and the validation of their decisions in rebuilding, will be qualitative all season, not quantitative.
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