The Rockets Tried Small Ball. Did It Work? Well, They Beat the Lakers.
LOS ANGELES — Among his many pregame duties whenever the Houston Rockets are on the road, Tony Nila scrawls each player’s nickname on a strip of masking tape and affixes it to the top of that player’s locker. Nila, the team’s equipment manager, refers to Russell Westbrook as “Why Not.” Tyson Chandler goes by “OG.” P.J. Tucker is “Champagne Papi.”
Before the Rockets faced the Lakers on Thursday night at Staples Center, Nila added a new player to his list: Robert Covington, a 6-foot-7 forward whom the Rockets acquired this week before the N.B.A.’s trade deadline. The name on Covington’s strip of masking tape was straightforward: “Rob.”
Its simplicity, though, ran counter to everything that Covington’s presence represented: the latest and perhaps boldest experiment in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s long history of doing funky stuff on the basketball court. The Rockets are going small — really small — and not even D’Antoni is sure how it will pan out.
“We don’t know,” D’Antoni said. “I do feel that this is the best way to go, and we’ll see. We’ll adjust the other way if it isn’t.”
D’Antoni began toying with the concept last week when Clint Capela, who was then the team’s starting center, was sidelined with a foot injury. D’Antoni shifted Tucker, who is 6 foot 5, to the center position. The Rockets proceeded to win three in a row without Capela, then traded him to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday as part of a four-team deal — the same deal in which the Rockets landed Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Before his team played the Lakers, D’Antoni described the game as a “big test” and “one we’re not quite ready for yet.” He was worried about how his new-look rotation would handle LeBron James, who is a slab of chiseled granite, and Anthony Davis, who is a redwood. D’Antoni was starting a bunch of shrubs by comparison: no one taller than 6 foot 6.
“It’s like taking a test, and you haven’t studied for it yet,” D’Antoni said. “So that’s not good.”
The Rockets must have crammed at the last minute. They came away from their 121-111 victory over the Lakers feeling much more reassured about the new direction they were taking.
“Any time you try something different, these guys have got to believe in it,” D’Antoni said as he gestured toward the locker room behind him. “This helps. This helps a lot. Because if you come in here and get spanked, we’re all little, and it’s, ‘Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ So they’re fired up, and we’ll keep trying.”
Perhaps the basketball world should have seen this coming. A couple of years ago, Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey made his first foray as the producer of a Broadway-style musical, which was about a team of 6-inch-tall Lilliputians vying for respect in an international basketball league. It was called — what else? — “Small Ball.”
There is something refreshing about a contender coming to the hard realization that its approach is not working and changing course — and doing so in dramatic fashion. For D’Antoni and Morey, that meant finding a way to help Westbrook do what he does best: produce off the dribble. When Capela was on the floor, Westbrook often found his path to the basket impeded. Capela spent a lot of time in the paint, and so did his defenders. It created traffic for Westbrook to navigate.
“We’ve got Russ, who’s a unique talent,” D’Antoni said. “And I think we need to play to his talents.”
Against the Lakers, D’Antoni stationed five players on the perimeter — a scheme that dragged defenders to the 3-point line, and Westbrook had seams to the hoop, scoring 41 points while shooting 17 of 28 from the field. Teammates enjoyed all the open space, too. Late in the second half, on a designed play that caught the attention of the analytics gurus who run the Twitter account Positive Residual, the Rockets’ Danuel House Jr. slipped a screen near the top of the key, and Covington whipped the ball to him for a dunk.
For D’Antoni, it was a game that fulfilled his vision in other ways. He saw a scrambling defense that caused problems for the Lakers, who were limited to 18 points in the fourth quarter. He watched his team sink 19 of 42 3-pointers. And he delighted in the seamless addition of Covington, who was Rockets’ most versatile player in his debut.
“He did a lot of things,” said D’Antoni, whose team improved to 33-18 ahead of its game against the Phoenix Suns on Friday night.
Covington came off the bench and played terrific defense — he blocked a shot by Davis on a critical possession in the fourth quarter — and sank two 3-pointers in the final three minutes. He finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists just hours after joining the team in Los Angeles.
“My teammates put me in the right position,” Covington said, “and I just did what I was told.”
D’Antoni, long celebrated for his creativity, knows that his latest experiment is a gamble. He was asked whether he had considered going with a small-ball lineup earlier in his career.
“It depended how long my contract was,” he said. “And now it’s like, ‘O.K.!’”
He was joking about the fact that his contract with the Rockets expires after the season, and that perhaps he does not have much to lose if this whole thing is a flop.
To be clear, there are reasons to be skeptical: Can Tucker, who is 34, and his undersized teammates withstand several more months of punishment from opposing post players? Can the Rockets make enough 3-pointers to offset the layups they seem certain to give up to beefier opponents at the other end? And can they really expect to play this way over the grind of a seven-game playoff series? The novelty will wear off, and good teams will adjust.
But it is also true that the Rockets were not going anywhere as formerly constructed. So why not try something new? Seems simple enough.
“We just have a weird kind of team,” D’Antoni said, “and we’re trying to figure out how to play them the best we can, and this is it.”