General Manager Daryl Morey has been upfront about his “obsession” with beating the Golden State Warriors. After the Houston Rockets bowed out of last year’s playoffs early—without even facing their admitted obsession—Morey set to work retooling his roster with the Warriors firmly in mind.
He signed versatile wing defenders (P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) to form the backbone of a switch-heavy defense and brought in Chris Paul to share the offensive load with James Harden. While adding any player of Paul’s caliber would have been helpful, one aspect of Paul’s game was particularly intriguing for a matchup against Golden State: his isolation brilliance.
The Warriors’ team defense is so exceptional that relying on isolation basketball to score against them is one way to minimize the talent differential. Golden State’s switching scheme neutralizes many pick-and-roll actions, and the team’s collective IQ allows them to diagnose and disrupt designed plays. To beat this kind of five-headed defensive monster, there is some logic in focusing on one head at a time (i.e. iso ball) if you have world-class talent.
Golden State’s two biggest challengers during this run happen to be teams that featured a pair of unstoppable isolation scorers. The 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder stormed to a 3-1 series lead due to the individual brilliance of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; the 2016-17 champion Cleveland Cavaliers clawed back from a 1-3 hole by force-feeding their own isolation dynamos—LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
With Harden and Paul, the Rockets have two of the game’s best decision-makers steering the most efficient offense the NBA has ever seen. Houston is setting all kinds of records for isolation efficiency because the offense unlocks the genius of Harden and Paul by giving them more space than either of them have ever experienced in their careers.
On both team and individual levels, these Rockets are posting the best isolation season on record:
Harden and Paul can wreak isolation havoc in many ways, but they’re courteous enough to let the defense choose how it will meet its demise. If defenders are left on an island, both players can dismantle their prey and get to the basket with frightening ease:
Both players are also adept at lulling defenders to sleep with a hypnotic array of dribble moves before splashing a pullup jimbo in someone’s face (or while they’re on their ass):
If the defense instinctively rotates too far away from one of the other Rockets, Paul and Harden have a finetuned radar system capable of picking out the open man, and Daryl Morey has stacked the roster with elite shooters:
Some are skeptical about Houston’s chances in the postseason, mostly due to the track records of Harden, Paul and D’Antoni. While defense typically improves in the playoffs, this is usually because teams have more time to game-plan for their opponents and scheme coverages to defang the most potent actions. I’m not sure if that’s really possible for an offense so reliant on isolation basketball.
We saw the San Antonio Spurs counter last year’s Rockets by making their bigs defend the pick-and-roll with a deep drop. This allowed them to defend the pick-and-roll with only two players, stay home on shooters and left Harden to settle for mid-range jumpers (something he didn’t do) or try to finish at the rim over the length of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Some teams have defended Houston’s pick-and-rolls like that this year, but there are three things worth noting about the deep drop and how it relates to this year’s Rockets:
1) If you deep drop against Chris Paul, he will feast in the mid-range. As part of his baptism by MoreyBall, Paul is shooting fewer mid-range jumpers but they haven’t disappeared from his diet. More importantly, he is still incredibly efficient from the mid-range. Per Cleaning The Glass, Paul is shooting 50% from the mid-range (94th percentile for PGs) and a blistering 56% on 2-pointers outside 14 feet (98th percentile for PGs). Forcing those mid-range looks is a favorable outcome for the defense compared to the alternatives, but it’s still not a good outcome when Chris Paul is involved.
2) James Harden and Chris Paul are EN FUEGO on pull-up 3s. Per NBA.com/Stats, Harden and Paul are 6th and 8th respectively in 3P% on pull-ups (min. two pull-up 3PA per game). The only players ahead of them are Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans (??), Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, C.J. McCollum and Paul George (who sits at 7th sandwiched between the two Rockets). Paul has historically been very good at the shot, but he’s amped up the volume in Houston. Harden shot a measly 33% on these looks last year (the product of having to barf up too many of them in late-clock situations and/or when he was tired), but is up to 39% on pull-up 3s this season. Furthermore, the Rockets are setting ballscreens very high on the floor giving Harden and Paul more space to pull-up from deep if the defense drops too far back.
3) The deep drop doesn’t help teams defend Harden and Paul in isolation. This wasn’t as troubling last year when Harden was the only real creator on the team. Forcing Harden to carry the entire offense on his back in isolation was too much to ask from any player not named LeBron James. But he has a partner-in-crime this year, and they’re running roughshod over the entire league. The Rockets will use any player as the ball-screener in an attempt to single out the weakest defender in the herd. If the defense switches, Houston gets the isolation matchup it wanted. If the defense doesn’t switch, Paul/Harden carves them up with their pick-and-roll mastery. If the defense traps/shows, the other Rockets have made good decisions on the short roll.
But what does it all mean, Basil? Everything comes back to isolation basketball. Golden State’s entire offense is built around Stephen Curry’s pull-up shooting. It’s an unsolvable riddle that paralyzes defenses and unlocks the Warriors’ glorious ball movement. Houston has its own unsolvable riddle: Harden and Paul in isolation.
Unless opponents can field a 5-man lineup where everyone can credibly defend those two in isolation, nobody is stopping these Rockets over a series. There is, of course, one team that come close. Houston’s approach to the Warriors’ Death Lineup (Curry, Klay, Iguodala, Durant, Draymond) will mirror Cleveland’s in recent years: pick on Stephen Curry. The Warriors excel at protecting Curry on defense, but that won’t be easy against these Rockets thanks to their immaculate spacing. Houston’s title hopes rest on whether Harden and Paul can sustain this ridiculous level of isolationist basketball in a playoff setting. I don’t know if the Rockets will win the title, but I’m betting that Harden and Paul will continue to cook.
If Houston’s isolation game drops off in the postseason, the Rockets will need to lean more heavily on their designed plays. Mike D’Antoni has unleashed a system that dominates through minimalism, but his team has also sprinkled in a variety of set plays and actions that keep the defense on edge. I’ve broken down 11 of their sets below.
Ball Screen Actions
Ball Screen Flares
Houston often runs these flare sets to free up Ryan Anderson (4) for a deep three. Anderson sets a high screen for the ball handler (1) and then immediately darts off a flare screen set by the other big (5). Anderson’s defender is typically focused on the ballhandler and isn’t in good position to get over the flare screen in time.
Spain Pick & Roll
The Spanish national team is acknowledged as the creator of this tweak to a standard spread pick-and-roll (hence the name). The play initially develops as a normal pick-and-roll, but a third offensive player (2) adds a dose of unpredictability to the set. This third player sets a backscreen for the roll man (5) and then pops to the top of the key.
The defense has to switch this action perfectly to defend it well; more often than not one of the three options (ballhandler/roll man/popper) are left open.
Houston does a great deal of damage with a simple wide pindown for their cadre of shooters. These pindowns aren’t just a specific playcall but a part of their freelancing motion in early offense.
Decoy STS Pindown
The Rockets have started busting out this play recently, but it hasn’t been that successful. It initially looks like a regular Screen-The-Screener (STS) set with Chris Paul (1) setting a down screen for Clint Capela (5), but Capela immediately reverses direction and sets a pindown for Paul at the free-throw line.
Thru Down Minnesota
This play develops as though it’s a designed post-up for 1, but it’s really a down screen for the post-entry passer (2 in diagram). As 2 makes his Thru cut to clear out, he abruptly changes direction and flies off a down screen at the free-throw line. Normally this results in a wide open three, but as teams have scouted it the Rockets have been able to get backdoor layups out of this play.
Many teams occasionally throw in the Hammer set made popular by the San Antonio Spurs. When the ballhandler (1) drives at the rim, the defense makes the necessary rotations to protect the basket. On this play, 1 is actually driving to the baseline to create the passing angle to find the shooter (2) using the Hammer screen to get an open corner three.
Let this be a reminder to you all that I’m unfamiliar with the actual names of these plays. But this is a neat dose of misdirection that mimics the Decoy STS Pindown play mentioned above. It initially looks like a simple pindown for 1, but he instantly stops and sets the pindown for 2 to go and receive the hand-off.
Thru Down DHO
This set has proven to be an effective way to get Harden or Paul (1) a dribble hand-off in a favorable position. The down screen from 4 gets 1 some initial separation and then he’s able to receive the DHO in space against a scrambled defense.
Thru Cross DHO
Yet another play from Houston’s Thru series. This time as the Thru cutter (2) makes his cut, he sets up as if he’s going to set a back screen for 1 but veers away at the last second to set a pindown instead. 1 uses the pindown to flow right into a dribble hand-off.
This is a simple act of misdirection, but the defense has to honor the backscreen set by 1 for fear of conceding a layup to the cutting 2. After setting the backscreen, 1 sprints to the top of the key to receive a DHO from the 5. More often than not, 1 doesn’t even have to actually make contact on the screen; faking the screen is enough to distract the defense and gain an advantage.
This play looks a little like an NFL end around, but the Rockets use this action to create some side-to-side movement. The first step is a fake DHO to get the defense moving and then the real target for the DHO (2) comes back in the opposite direction to receive the hand-off with plenty of real estate to operate.