Rockets relying on small-ball heading into tilt with Kings

NBA Basketball

The Houston Rockets were once more bullied on the backboards Thursday, yet again it mattered little in terms of the final score.

The Rockets (43-25) improved to 3-1 since the restart with their 113-97 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, winning despite a minus-14 rebounding margin.

By fully leaning into a small-ball lineup, the Rockets knowingly sacrificed rebounding in favor of opening the floor offensively for the penetration talents of guard Russell Westbrook and their gaggle of shooters.

When the Rockets face the Sacramento Kings on Sunday near Orlando, the odds are good that another disadvantage on the glass will play out. Yet despite securing only 65.9 percent of available defensive rebounds in the bubble, the lowest mark in the NBA since the restart, the Rockets continue to thrive via effort and advantages elsewhere.

“I think we’ve been fighting and competing,” said Rockets guard James Harden, who on Saturday was named one of three finalists for league Most Valuable Player honors along with Milwaukee Bucks forward and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lakers forward and four-time MVP LeBron James.

“Obviously with their length, they’re going to get a few more offensive rebounds than we want, but I think if we’re making up for it with the ball pressure and getting steal opportunities and then our offense, we’re taking really good shots, I think it makes up for it.”

The Rockets rank second in turnover margin on both ends, committing turnovers just 11.1 percent of the time offensively while forcing an 18.5 percent turnover rate. Their ball security combined with the ability to force miscues has offset the pounding the Rockets have taken on the glass.

The Kings (29-40) are seeded last among the six contenders for the final playoff spot in the West, having dropped four of five games in the bubble to inch toward elimination.

Sacramento sustained a 119-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Friday and has struggled to overcome the challenges of roster attrition that teams like Brooklyn continue to battle through positively.

“We need more,” Kings coach Luke Walton said. “That’s one of the positive reasons (that) it’s great to be out here is we get to continue learning this. But, yeah, we’ve got to be better.”

Sacramento has been most vulnerable on the defensive end of the court, posting a 118.8 defensive rating during the restart. The mark would rank last by almost four points per 100 possessions if extrapolated over the entire season (the Washington Wizards rank last at 114.9).

The Kings have shown flashes of offensive potency, even with a rotation altered by injury. But for a unit focused on collective growth, strides won’t be made until the defense gets up to snuff.

“We’ll continue to talk about it,” Walton said. “I think the best way to learn a lesson is to go through things, to live through things. Going through this bubble and seeing what it’s like, that should be a big-time motivator for us as a group as we continue to move forward, and it doesn’t get any easier. We’ve got Houston, we’ve got New Orleans again and we’ve got the Lakers.

“There’s going to be plenty more opportunities for us to learn that, but until we do (we’ll continue to struggle defensively).”

–Field Level Media

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