NBA

Are the Houston Rockets Bound to Regress in Game 2?

The Rockets made 22 of 50 three-point attempts in Game 1. But can they sustain that type of shooting efficiency?

Did the Houston Rockets just go into San Antonio and win a Game 7 against the Spurs? No? It was Game 1? Well, you had me fooled.

On Tuesday, the airwaves were polluted with Rockets love, LaMarcus Aldridge hate and the ever-present narrative about the Spurs finally getting too old to compete for a title. For years, we've been looking for reasons to write off head coach Gregg Popovich and his crew.

But, as fun as the Rockets are to watch, and as brilliant as their team approach is, it's time to slow your roll, people!

Beyond the fact that they're still the same ol' reliable Spurs, the numbers tell us the Rockets are in for some serious shooting regression.

The Rockets' Shooting

Here's how Houston performed from the three-point line when guarded in a certain way during their Game 1 win over the Spurs.

Game 1: HOU vs. Closest Defender 3PM 3PA 3P% eFG%
Very Tight (0-2 ft) 0 2 0.0% 42.9%
Tight (2-4 ft) 7 10 70.0% 83.3%
Open (4-6 ft) 10 24 41.7% 56.7%
Wide Open (6-8 ft) 5 14 35.7% 50.0%


In impressive fashion, the Rockets hit 70.0% of their threes when tightly guarded. Most of their attempts, however, came with the closest defender at least four feet away. On those 38 attempts, Houston shot 39.5%, leading to an effective field goal percentage of 54.4% on 45 total attempts when contested outside that range.

Maybe we shouldn't be so shocked. After all, the Rockets were an elite three-point shooting team throughout the regular season. The following table suggests Houston exceeded their previously established shooting standards, though.

Regular Season: HOU vs. Closest Defender 3PM 3PA 3P% eFG%
Very Tight (0-2 ft) 0.2 0.8 22.4% 49.3%
Tight (2-4 ft) 2.3 7.6 30.4% 53.7%
Open (4-6 ft) 6.0 16.6 36.3% 55.4%
Wide Open (6-8 ft) 5.8 15.2 38.4% 58.7%


Here's how much they improved upon those numbers in Game 1.

Difference: HOU vs. Closest Defender 3PM 3PA 3P% eFG%
Very Tight (0-2 ft) -0.2 +1.2 -22.4% -6.4%
Tight (2-4 ft) +4.7 +2.4 +39.6% +29.6%
Open (4-6 ft) +4.0 +7.4 +5.4% +1.3%
Wide Open (6-8 ft) -0.8 -1.2 -2.7% -8.7%


As previously touched on, they ramped up their shooting volume and efficiency when tightly-guarded or reasonably open. The difference of 39.6% on tightly-contested threes is the most notable of the four tiers.

This would suggest the Rockets are bound to return to reality and shoot a lower percentage in these situations. Does that mean we should just ignore all the issues head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense causes?

The Spurs' Shooting Defense

There's no denying Houston's advantage in pace and ability to exploit the bigger Spurs in Game 1, but during the regular season, San Antonio won three of the teams' four meetings. They held the Rockets to 104.8 points per game on 29.4% shooting from three as they ranked fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage allowed (34.4%).

By proximity of defense, here's the breakdown of the Spurs' defensive coverage when facing the Rockets this regular season.

Regular Season: SAS as Closest Defender 3PM 3PA 3P% eFG%
Very Tight (0-2 ft) 0.0 1.0 0.0% 43.6%
Tight (2-4 ft) 1.5 7.0 24.4% 45.5%
Open (4-6 ft) 4.3 14.3 29.8% 52.1%
Wide Open (6-8 ft) 5.5 16.3 33.8% 53.9%


For the most part, the Spurs have limited the effectiveness of the Rockets' outside game. In four games, they held them to an effective field goal percentage of 48.8% -- 5.7% lower than their season average of 54.5%.

So to say their defense Monday night showed no resemblance of what they were in the regular season would be an understatement.

Difference: SAS as Closest Defender3PM3PA3P%eFG%
Very Tight (0-2 ft)0.0+1.00.0%-0.7%
Tight (2-4 ft)+5.5+3.0+45.6%+37.8%
Open (4-6 ft)+5.7+9.7+11.9%+4.6%
Wide Open (6-8 ft)-0.5+2.3+1.9%+3.9%


The Spurs allowed better numbers in all but four of the 16 subcategories. Specifically, they couldn't force the Rockets into the same contested misses they were able to earlier in the year.

Meanwhile, Houston's three-point attempt rate of 57.5% in Game 1 was much higher than it was in their four regular season matchups (44.4%). With more opportunities -- due to slower defensive rotations on the Spurs part -- the Rockets got up more shots and capitalized on them.

If the Spurs can't cut down those opportunities, they're not doing themselves any favors. And as unlikely as it is for the Rockets to continue their scorching-hot shooting, the Spurs have to do their best to deny them the chance to win a game from the three-point arc.

Impending Regression

Having watched Gregg Popovich make countless adjustments in the middle of games and series over the last hundred years, it's very likely that the Spurs' defense returns to their ways of the regular season. If they do, it's even more likely that the Rockets hit a wall of shooting regression sooner rather than later.

Not so surprisingly then, our algorithms currently have the series as basically a push. At 46.87%, San Antonio still has a sizable chance of winning the series, and at 22.48%, the most likely individual outcome has the Spurs winning in seven games.