The Rockets Adapt Out Of Playoff Necessity

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Tuesday April 25th, 2017

The Houston Rockets are not themselves. The most prolific three-point shooting team of all time—one that attempted 500 more threes than any other team on record—has normalized. Houston’s bustling offense has been stalled to the point that nearly half of its usual allotment of fast break points has evaporated. This is what the discipline and specificity of playoff defense can do to a team. It can deny and contain whatever mechanisms an offense relies on most, forcing players to sort out some alternative rhythm in real time.

In Houston’s case, that just hasn’t mattered. Oklahoma City has tried to switch and contain most James Harden pick-and-rolls as a means of limiting the manpower involved. If Harden never turns the corner, then there would be no need for a third defender to slide into the lane while leaving an shooter unattended. Even if he does, the Thunder are resolved to stick to the Rockets' floor spacers 'til the end.

Trevor Ariza, Taj Gibson, Lou Williams, Victor Oladipo, Eric Gordon, and Russell Westbrook might as well not even be on the floor on this possession. This is a true two-man game—a creator and roller left to their own devices. 

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That approach has completely bottled a player like Ariza, who took seven threes a game in the regular season and now can barely find room for an attempt. Passes just don't swing his way anymore. The few that do tend to kill whatever momentum would be generated in the first place. There is no close-out to attack. A balanced, well-positioned defender is already on top of Ariza as soon as he gets the ball, nullifying the value of his possession in the first place. 

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Closing off those kick-out avenues is something almost any defense can do. Most schemes demand versatility across the board—bigs have to show, wings need to rotate, and guards are forced to scrap their way through mismatches. For those guarding off the ball, this strategy only demands their attention. Houston wants to keep the floor spaced, so as long a weak-side defender eyes a potential pass out to the perimeter, their matchup in that moment is as good as contained. The success and failure of a defensive possession then falls on just two Thunder defenders.

Harden and the Rockets have taken a 3-1 lead in this series on that tradeoff. It turns out there's a reason why every defense's first instinct is to collapse on any of Harden's drives; there is no other way to contain him that doesn't involve putting a defender—even one as sharp and relentless as Andre Roberson—at a significant disadvantage. Roberson can try to pursue around a ball screen but already gives up the lane at the point where it's set. Taj Gibson or Steven Adams can try to switch, but Harden is brutally effective in using a defender's positioning and leaning against them. The core defenders involved are essentially set up for failure. 

As a result, Houston's playoff offense has relied on a noticeably different shot profile from the regular season but scored with almost identical efficiency. What the Rockets have lost in three-point attempts they've made up with drives deep into the paint, burst creativity from Houston's other guards, and the manipulation of the defense to draw fouls. Starting most every possession with two compromised defenders staring down a Harden pick-and-roll has led OKC to some particularly desperate holding and swiping. That's no way to defend one of the most deceptive covers in the league, nor to contain a roll man with great touch and clever footwork.

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Harden attempted more free throws than any other player in the league in the regular season. In this series, his free throw rate has only gone up—to 14 game and to a proportional terror of .68 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt. Nene, while working on a much smaller scale, is nearly maxing out as Harden's running mate. Of the 35 possessions he's used in this series: 23 have ended in makes (good for a ho-hum 92% shooting from the field) and nine (including two and-one finishes) have drawn fouls leading to free throws. Oklahoma City's chosen style has left its active defenders with little recourse.

This is where Harden leaves you. The Thunder have busted ass to get back in transition all series, further siphoning off some of the Rockets' favorite looks from deep. They have regulated Houston's spread pick-and-roll to work within the arc. Ariza and Ryan Anderson have been handcuffed by their own specialty. With dedicated effort, OKC has shut down the mechanics that allowed Harden to create more than 1100 points this season on three-point assists alone. They've done all of this right and still they're drowning.

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