When Brad Stevens is asked about the Houston Rockets and their “micro-ball” style of play, he can’t help but let out a small chuckle.
“I get a kick out of the small-ball category,” Stevens said before describing the Rockets as, “Just a bunch of linebackers; tough, strong, physical, can’t post them. Excellent in doing what they do best and hard to play against.”
For teams who square off against the new-look Rockets, as the Celtics will Saturday night, don’t let what they lack in height fool you.
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When the teams met earlier this month, the Celtics were handed a 116-105 loss that was highlighted by James Harden (42 points) and Russell Westbrook (36) combining to shoot an efficient 52.4 percent (22-for-42) from the field. The Rockets more than hold their own on the glass before Boston eventually emerged with a 48-45 rebounding edge.
While much of the attention centers on the Rockets having a starting five void of a traditional post player, Stevens is quick to point out that what Houston lacks in the middle they more than make up for in other areas.
“They have a physical advantage at a lot of positions,” Stevens cautioned.
That didn’t stop Gordon Hayward from tallying a near double-double against the Rockets on Feb. 11, tallying 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting to go with eight rebounds and six assists.
“They obviously play a little different than just about everybody in the NBA,” Hayward said. “And with the guys they have, they make you...you have to be disciplined at both ends.”
And that’s a lot easier said than done, especially when it comes to prepping for the defensive challenge that awaits any team trying to limit Harden and Westbrook, a pair of unconscious scorers.
“It’s hard to reproduce what Harden and Westbrook, can really do, in practice,” Hayward said. “Certainly when you’re out there [in a game], it’s a little different. You want to try and make them shoot tough shots and try to not let them get easy looks and try to keep them both off the line.”
The Rockets and their diminutive lineup first made headlines on Jan. 31, when they defeated the Dallas Mavericks 128-121, becoming the first NBA team in more than 50 years to use no players taller than 6-7.
That victory set into motion the most successful run of the season for Houston, winners of nine of their past 11 games.
One of the more surprising results of the Rockets using a smaller lineup for longer stretches has been their improvement defensively.
For the 2019-20 season, Houston has had a middle-of-the-pack defensive rating (109.6) and ranks 15th in the league.
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Still, in the past 11 games, Houston’s defense has taken off to where it ranks 10th overall (defensive rating of 109.8).
Meanwhile, the Celtics defense in that same period has a rating that ranks eighth (108.7) in the league and is the NBA's fourth-best overall at 105.9.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Rockets-Celtics, which begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.