MINNEAPOLIS – When Damian Lillard drilled the 3-pointer to beat Houston in Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs last season, the Rockets left Portland knowing that they had to do one thing if they were going to become legitimate contenders in the powerful Western Conference.
They had to become a better defensive team.
Assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff took on the task, and the changes he has implemented have been a smashing success early this season. The Rockets are second in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, third in field-goal percentage defense and third in points allowed per game, helping them to a 16-4 record that is the second-best start in the league.
"Last year at the end of the playoffs, we sat down and went over a lot of stuff," coach Kevin McHale said. "We just had to get better defensively. We had to get more disruptive. JB Bickerstaff has done a great job."
Even more impressive is that the Rockets have been so successful while playing almost half of their games without their two best defensive players — Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley. Howard has only played 10 games and Beverley eight because of injuries, but new swingman Trevor Ariza and veteran Jason Terry have been instrumental in instilling a new focus and attention to detail on that side of the floor.
Bickerstaff, one of the rising young assistants in the game, said he watched video of Howard's dominant days in Orlando and consulted with other coaches including his father, Bernie, and Mike Brown, a respected defensive strategist, to come up with a plan to address the Rockets' issues on defense.
"The last play in Portland was kind of a microcosm of our entire season," Bickerstaff said. "There was miscommunication and it ended with a wide open look for Damian that cost us.
"The biggest thing is the guys have bought in and are committed on that end of the floor," he said. "Now you hear guys in tight games saying, 'We're one of the best defensive teams in the league. Let's get a stop. This is what we do.'"
The Rockets play at Golden State, at Sacramento and host Denver this week.
Here are some other things to keep an eye on in the NBA:
PARKER'S 3s: Spurs PG Tony Parker is shooting 65 percent from 3-point range this season and is averaging 1.4 attempts per game, which would be his highest since the 2004-05 season if he sustains it through the year. "As I get older, Pop is less concerned about what I'm doing so I'm sneaking in some 3s sometimes," Parker joked.
LEBRON VS. DURANT: The best game of the week could be on Thursday, when LeBron James and the streaking Cavaliers visit Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant and Russell Westbrook are finally healthy and playing, and every game counts for them after the Thunder lost 13 of their first 17 with them on the bench.
MAVERICKS' TOUGH WEEK: Every week is tough in the West, but Dallas definitely has its work cut out this week with a trip to Memphis on Tuesday, a home game against Anthony Davis and New Orleans on Wednesday and a visit from the conference-leading Golden State Warriors on Saturday.
COUSINS' HEALTH: DeMarcus Cousins' impressive start has been derailed by a viral infection. He's missed the last five games and it remains unclear when the big man will return to the Kings' lineup.
SURGING SIXERS? After going 0-17 and coming dangerously close to setting the record for worst start to a season, the Philadelphia 76ers have won two of their last three games, beating Detroit and Minnesota last week. They travel to Atlanta on Wednesday and Brooklyn on Friday before hosting Memphis on Saturday.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs: The ageless wonder had 14 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists on Dec. 6 at Memphis, helping the Spurs overcome the loss of Parker to beat the rugged Grizzlies, 107-101. It was the 38-year-old Duncan's first triple-double in the regular season since Nov. 11, 2010 at Golden State.