Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Staff
The Rockets can hear the words, in associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik’s booming voice, in their sleep.
He says them fast, having been repeated so often they spill out like a pop star offering the encore he has performed for decades.
“Talk it. Touch it. Switch it. Grab it.”
They are the basics of the Rockets’ switching defense that has helped fuel their run to the top of the Western Conference standings and the climb to the top 10 defensively.
“Only every day we hear them,” forward Ryan Anderson said. “I can hear them in my head.”
“Talk it. Touch it. Switch it. Grab it.”
Scouting report: vs. Toronto
When/where: 7 p.m. today; Toyota Center.
TV/radio: ATTSW, NBA; 790 AM, 850 AM (Span.).
Rockets (11-3) update: They have won three of the past four meetings with the Raptors and nine of the past 10 in Houston. … Clint Capela’s 69.6 percent shooting leads the NBA. He went 9-of-12 for 20 points Sunday. … James Harden has averaged 35.8 points and 11.5 assists, while making 49.2 percent of his shots and 44.7 percent of his 3s, during the six-game winning streak. His 15 assists Sunday were a season high and moved him to the league lead in assists per game, averaging 10.2. He is the only player in franchise history to score at least 20 points in the first 14 games of a season. … The Rockets have had at least 10 steals in each of the past three games and average 9.21 per game, third most in the NBA.
Raptors (7-5) update: They are 3-4 on the road after losing 95-94 in Boston on Sunday. … The Raptors have the fifth-ranked offense in the NBA, averaging two points per 100 possessions less than the second-ranked Rockets. … Guard DeMar DeRozan, who has led the Raptors in scoring in five consecutive games, averaging 28.8 points in that stretch, averaged 30 points on 52.5 percent shooting against the Rockets last season … Serge Ibaka has made 44.5 percent of his 3s in the past five games.
Statistically speaking: 120.2. – Points per game averaged by the Rockets, on 48.8 percent shooting, during their six-game winning streak.
They are the demands to make the defensive philosophy work, turning the switches from a way to pass responsibility into a weapon.
“I can hear it in my sleep,” center Tarik Black said.
The Rockets had made improving defensively a priority, with coach Mike D’Antoni calling for a rise to the top 10. And with that no longer a sufficient aspiration, they seek the far more challenging climb into the top five.
The improvement has been clear, but not as conspicuous as the switches that can put centers Clint Capela and Nene on guards, James Harden and Eric Gordon on centers, or anything in between.
“We would like to keep our matchups, but if a guy gets (screened) and he can’t get through and control his man, we switch it,” D’Antoni said. “They got the communication going. We’ve watched so much film and talked about it so much, it becomes second nature.”
Four simple phrases
All that goes back to Bzdelik’s orders.
“Talk it” is the communication that has improved as the Rockets have become accustomed to the scheme and one another, preventing breakdowns.
“Touch it” is the hands-on exchange of the assignment, almost like the passing of the baton in a relay except the touch is on the opponent.
“Switch it” is the exchange of responsibilities, coming now to be aggressive, rather that passive defensively.
“Grab it” is subtler and yet physical, with players taking a brief hold of an opponent to prevent the hard cut to the rim, being sure to be aggressive and quick enough to do it in time so it is within NBA rules of “tactile touch,” as the league describes what is permitted.
“It has to be done properly,” Bzdelik said. “Switching can’t be a convenience. It has to be used as a weapon. It can be very effective because of the way the game is played. Our rules are, you switch to deny, you switch to force a turnover and you switch to take away a 3.
“When you alternate between switching and different schemes, it keeps even great players a little off-balance.”
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The style has worked well. Before the Rockets’ winning streak, they ranked 14th defensively. In their six-game run, they have had the NBA’s fifth-best defense, moving them to eighth this season.
“It’s allowing us to be great at what we do,” Harden said. “Our communication is at a high level right now. Our defense is creating a lot of opportunities for our offense. We get stops, push the ball. That’s when guys can get their mojo offensively.”
The scheme is far from unique and fits to defend the current NBA style of offense. By switching, teams can keep a defender on shooters. The risk is having guards on big men, but typically Harden and Gordon can battle for low-post position enough to contest those shots.
“You’re talking about Eric Gordon, who might be the strongest guy on the team,” D’Antoni said. “He and P.J. (Tucker) have those barrel chests. And James guards bigs, always has. And our bigs can guard littles.”
Gordon said it did “take an adjustment” to regularly defend 7-footers in the paint, but it has worked.
“It’s still a tough, contested shot,” he said. “We want all them to shoot all the tough 2s. It’s not going to even out when we’re making 3s. If they’re making a tough 2, so be it. It’s not going to add up to enough.”
The Rockets have also cut back on their “switches of convenience,” now switching with a purpose.
Flipping right switch
Against the Pacers especially, they excelled at staying with conventional coverages on some possessions, switching on others.
“That’s the hardest thing for an offense,” D’Antoni said. “Are they switching every time, not switching?”
That is the great strength of the Warriors’ defense and especially effective for the Rockets’ second unit with Tucker and Mbah a Moute on the floor with starters Trevor Ariza and Anderson. Anderson has been more effective defensively one-on-one on the perimeter. Ariza has long been among the league’s most versatile defenders.
“We shut some people down,” D’Antoni said. “The defense has been really good. It can get better. It’s just being aware of what we want to do and just playing hard. It’s everybody doing their job, being in the right spot and understanding each other and knowing when to switch and when we don’t switch. It’s becoming a team.”