To watch the Rockets' offense churn is to see some of the best basketball players in the world at a loss. Opponents can only endure so much of James Harden's scoring before hands are thrown up in exasperation. Chatter among defenders gives way to bickering. Piercing glances erode trust. Blame is pushed around and around whenever the Rockets have their way, which is pretty much always; when it isn't Harden punishing the defense, it's Chris Paul, and when isn't Chris Paul, it's one of so many—too many—shooters or finishers spaced perfectly around the floor.
This is as crushing an offense as the league has ever seen. It takes a concerted effort to stall the Rockets in transition and a great deal of game planning to slow their pick-and-roll game. Yet even a defense that accomplishes both is still positioned for failure, all due to Houston's unprecedented success in isolation. One-on-one play, in the most general sense, has its limits. They simply do not apply in these circumstances—not when the creators involved are literally the two most efficient isolation players in the league, according to Synergy Sports, surrounded by close to an optimal infrastructure.
The proof is in their standing. The Rockets' isolation offense alone—without the easy looks that come from fast breaks and put-backs – would rank as the most efficient offense in the league this season. The blunt simplicity of the format is overwhelmed by the force of talent involved. What Houston practices is a modern sort of mismatch basketball. Their own switching on defense forces a lot of favorable cross-matching in transition. If the Rockets can secure a rebound and attack quickly, some defender is often stuck in a matchup outside his comfort zone. If not, then Harden and Paul manipulate the defense to make it so—attacking weak points and triggering switches until they have their opponent on the ropes.
If an opponent is given the opportunity to switch, it's usually because Houston wants them to. The Rockets know what power they hold. They've seen defenses cycle through coverages all season out of desperation, trying everything possible to stop Harden and Paul from turning the corner. Most inevitably resort to switching, even going so far as to hang their plodding centers out to dry. Harden eats them alive:
Paul does too, though first he tends to play with his food. When Paul gets a matchup he likes, he quietly lulls his opponent out of position with a controlled series of dribble moves. The point isn't to blow by an opponent but to dislodge them; with the right twitch, Paul can push a much larger defender onto their back foot and out of range to contest his shot:
Considering how regularly Paul gets his shot off over seven footers, it's possible that we still understimate the speed and precision of his handle. The crossover sequence he throws at opposing centers is dizzying—a test of focus and positioning that most inevitably fail. There should be no angle for Paul to nestle back into the corner for a three on possessions like this one, and yet he pulls off this exact move on big after big:
And it's not just bigs—Harden, Paul, and Eric Gordon will often screen for one another as a means of controlling specific matchups. If Harden doesn't feel like grinding out a possession against DeAndre Liggins, how about the more pliable Ian Clark?
This style is unusually deliberate for a Mike D'Antoni team, but not entirely out of character. Over the years, D'Antoni has been cast as an idealogue when he's really just a pragmatist—albeit one working from a different perspective than many of his peers. The root of his run-and-gun system wasn't philosophy for philosophy's sake; it was an exercise to make the most of what works.
The personnel the Rockets have now changes those parameters—just as they change what the team considers to be a quality shot. Mid-range attempts aren't so bad when Paul, an all-time shooter from that space, is the one taking them. And an isolation offense can work brilliantly when Harden, who is making his case as the one of the best isolation players ever, is its defining instrument.
With the way Houston plays, there is effectively nowhere to hide. Stash a lesser defender on Luc Mbah a Moute or P.J. Tucker and the Rockets will throw them into the mix as screeners. Every player on the floor had better be prepared to defend against either the MVP of the league this season and one of the NBA's most cerebral point guards. And simultaneously, every player has to be ready to help and rotate from positions they may not be accustomed to:
Consider that possession. Carmelo Anthony is clearly annoyed that no teammate rotated into Harden's path, but who really could? The Thunder had already shrunk the floor as much as possible to crowd the lane. Digging down and swiping at Harden—one of the best foul-drawing players ever—would be ill-advised. A full rotation from Steven Adams would likely result in an uncontested dunk for Nene. Any attempt to help the helper would give up a wide open three-pointer elsewhere on the floor. There is a cost to any move Oklahoma City could make to defend Harden as a team, even when all involved understand what little chance Anthony has of stopping Harden on his own.
The Rockets force opponents into one-on-one combat but never let them actually choose their own combatant. That Houston plays so many guards and wings already dictates who can stay on the floor, when the reality is that most opponents don't have enough perimeter depth to match up fully. It's also not uncommon to see Houston cycle through two or three different pick-and-rolls on the same possession to deepen the scramble. Should a defense dare try to help the overmatched defender in the spotlight with any kind of double team or shading pressure, Harden and Paul will fire bullet passes into the hands of capable shooters:
For most teams, there honestly isn't much recourse—as evidenced by the fact that Houston is now 38-2 in games where all three of Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela are present. Realistically, the best, most coordinated defenses will have to fly around the floor to force Houston's supporting cast into difficult plays. Yet even those role players are propped up by the math of volume three-point shooting. Any team that spaces the floor and launches up threes without hesitation can be punishing. Even a few of those shots can turn a run, tilt the balance, and make a defense second-guess itself.
Staggered minutes and shared responsibility between Harden and Paul have made it possible. This kind of creation could weigh down any single star, as was the case with Harden in the 2017 playoffs. A collaboration allows both to be their most dynamic selves—even when creating offense all on their own.