Derrick White must have felt a bit of confusion late in the Spurs’ Monday night loss to the Rockets. After spending almost all of the last year of basketball as the best perimeter defender on the floor, with a little over 4 minutes to go Derrick was suddenly and quite conspicuously targeted for a switch. Not to get him off of the ball handler, which is a sensible thing for any offense to want, no, the object of the Rockets’ screening action was to get Derrick onto the ball.
Aside from Derrick’s stint with USA basketball, he had played just 22 possessions over the last 2 seasons alongside another guard who can do the position’s name justice (this is not a shot at Lonnie Walker IV, who has played primarily as a wing). That Dejounte Murray is an outstanding defender is unquestionable, but being good enough to turn Derrick into a target is a bit ridiculous. Derrick, as you may know, is fantastic on that end of the court, having garnered four All-Defensive Team votes last year, despite starting the season as a relative unknown and missing 15 games due to injury.
In this particular instance, the decision didn’t work out very well for the home squad, as James Harden lost the ball mere seconds into his isolation attack while attempting to spin away from Derrick’s swiping hand. Still, it’s hard to fault the Rockets’ for trying. Dejounte was incandescent as the primary defender on the league’s leading scorer. He seems to relish that particular match up, and the pair’s dust up in the 1st quarter did nothing to quell his fire.
Harden attempted his hypnotic dribble series on Dejounte three separate times as the game wound down, but the Rockets didn’t manage a single point on those possessions. With the rest of the defense in the same deep help positions the Spurs employed in their last meeting, Harden couldn’t find anything better than well-contested step back threes. In fact, the Rockets’ only buckets with Dejounte and Derrick sharing the court came on breakdowns from Bryn Forbes and Rudy Gay, which resulted in two consecutive made threes and provided just enough cushion to outlast the Silver and Black.
In both cases, the Rockets’ best chance to score came with Harden, and thus Dejounte, stashed safely away from the play. That speaks, obviously, to both the nature of Houston’s your turn/my turn offense and to the relative quality of the defenders San Antonio had at the other positions. But it also indicates just what a superlative defensive force the Spurs have in their young point guard.
Just like Lonnie’s success in the teams’ last meeting, Dejounte didn’t do it alone. Much of Harden’s struggles — 28 points on 45.2% true shooting — were the result of the Spurs focusing their defense on his every move. The evident intent was to force the other Rockets to put up points. That left Russell Westbrook once again matched up primarily with Bryn Forbes, who has now guarded the new Rocket nearly twice as much as any other Spur this year. Unlike in their double overtime loss two weeks ago, though, Westbrook made the most of the opportunity, putting up 31 points.
That turned out to be just enough, along with solid contributions from Clint Capela and Ben McLemore, to earn the victory. But all in all, the Rockets did not have a good offensive night, managing just 100.9 points per 100 possessions, which is their 3rd worst output of the season. They missed some open shots, but watching the Rockets attempt to score against Derrick and Dejounte down the stretch, where they put up just 6 points on 8 possessions before the game turned into a free throw contest, made it clear the defensive potential of that particular duo is high and still rising.
When it mattered most, the Rockets’ perimeter-oriented attack struggled to produce. Far from an outlier, that’s just the kind of thing that happens when Derrick White is your second best perimeter defender.