The slate of traps facing James Harden in recent nights is nothing new for the Rockets as they look to stave off elimination against the Lakers on Saturday.
Houston faced its first crisis of the year in early December as the three-time scoring champion began to see a steady stream of double teams as he crossed half-court. The strategy flummoxed Houston at first. Clint Capela froze on each catch near the foul line, Russell Westbrook chucked ill-advised jumpers, and the Rockets' offensive machine stalled to a serious degree. But Houston eventually found its way. Some of the season's top offensive performances came on quiet nights from Harden, with the Rockets punishing teams as they pinged their way to a flood of open threes. Perhaps Harden and Co. can replicate the performance with their season on the line in Game 5.
"Well, they’re double-teaming every time,” Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said on Friday. "Just as long as somebody’s scoring. And we’ve done it in different quarters. We just haven’t sustained it all the way through. And a lot of that is creating turnovers, running. You know in half-court, they’re going to double him and it’s going to be up the other guys to score a little bit more."
The Rockets have found a blueprint for busting the trap before, and the formula isn't complicated. Houston excelled when Harden recognized the oncoming double early, quickly finding a teammate flashing atop the key nearly as soon as he crossed halfcourt. There remained problems when Capela was the flashing Rocket, but Daryl Morey's midseason trade eliminated that issue. Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green are usually the player bailing Harden out of the double, and ideally, they quickly turn and burst downhill to collapse the defense. Both players are adept finishers even if the defense stays disciplined. But the task for opponents is easier said than done. As Houston crashes the lane, the threes follow.
The aforementioned formula has been effective for Houston, but it's far from perfect. Los Angeles has gotten away with trapping Harden while still rotating effectively onto shooters in the second round, a byproduct of its impressive length. The Lakers can effectively have their cake and eat it, too. They double Harden, allow their backline to run shooters inside the arc, then scramble to find the open Rocket as Houston drives into the lane. The most three-happy team in basketball made just 12 triples in Game 3 and 14 in Game 4. Los Angeles has completely disrupted Houston's offensive rhythm after Game 1.
Houston will need to find ways to avoid the trap entirely to take down the Lakers. Harden remains the Rockets' catalyst, and with an imperfect co-star, simply making the right play after each double isn't enough. The more volume from Harden the better as Houston faces elimination. Perhaps increased pace is the answer. Perhaps D'Antoni has some designed sets in store. Ultimately, the onus is on Harden to generate quality looks with his season on the line.
"Obviously we got to speed up," D'Antoni said. "There are times [Harden's] got to be a bit more selfish.”