It’s back to the drawing board for the Houston Rockets
Following their Game 2 loss in the Western Conference Semifinals to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets were surprisingly upbeat. Tied in the series at one game apiece, the Rockets believed that their often ridiculed “micro-ball” had flummoxed the Lakers; exposing the defensive weakness along the perimeter that many had worried might stymie the No. 1 seed.
Telling reporters of their “skyrocketing” confidence, Houston was, in their eyes, a Russell Westbrook collapse, and heroic performance by Markieff Morris away, from taking a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven matchup.
Another win by Los Angeles in Game 3 however, might not be so easy to brush off.
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Making a concerted effort to jumpstart Westbrook following the aforementioned disaster that was his previous outing, the Rockets came prepared to counter LA’s aggressive defense on James Harden early in the game.
Where Russ previously shot a collection of ill-advised 3’s when seeing the Lakers’ wings sag off him in an attempt to trap Harden, Westbrook instead made a habit of catching the ball at a run off the perimeter, gaining a head of steam and heading downhill with his signature ferociousness that often made irrelevant LA’s improved help-defense.
Even when he wasn’t driving to the rim, the 12th-year vet largely eschewed the 3-point line in favor of midrange shots near the elbow, an area he’s largely been effective in – ranking in the 48th percentile of all shooters, compared to the atrocious 16th he ranks behind the line, according to Synergy Sports.
While the adjustment was largely a success for the Rockets, with Westbrook contributing 30 points on 13-of-24 shooting, their decision to feature their other MVP, in a greater number of pick-and-rolls was not.
Having mostly operated in isolation above the perimeter in the first two games, Harden carved up the Lakers’ defense in these sets, when their fear of his step-back jumper led them to send a double early in the shot-clock. With shooters evenly placed around the court, the Beard had an unimpeded view of where the help was coming from, and time-and-again made the simple pass out of the double-team to a waiting shooter; who could choose the uncontested jumper or to make the extra pass to open up a driving lane amidst a scrambling LA defense.
Against even longer defenders, sent to obstruct his view, Harden relied not only on his superb court-vision, but on his familiarity with the Rockets’ system, sending the pass to where the shooter ought to be, and torching LeBron and company with an offense that looked entirely beyond their capability to stop.
Though many expected Houston to operate with a similar dynamic in Game 3, the Rockets instead featured Harden in a number of pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs. While the guard is talented enough to make the numbers look positive no matter what the setup may be, placing Harden near another teammate, and defender, gave the Lakers an opportunity to disguise where the help was coming from, and allowed LA to either trap and force a turnover, or gave them the half-second necessary for the other 3 defenders to rotate with their help-defense that was a step behind previously.
Whereas most teams would then counter with a high pick-and-roll near midcourt, in order to stretch the defense and get Harden downhill – a move we often see with Damian Lillard to great effect – the Rockets were often short-circuited by the foot-speed of Anthony Davis, and the Lakers’ ability to protect the paint, even against faster opponents.
Odd on its face it may be, Mike D’Antoni’s decision to shy away from Harden’s isolation play may have actually been an attempt to regain the initiative. Playing against an opponent desperate to find some way to slow their leading scorer down, D’Antoni witnessed the Lakers throw the kitchen sink at Harden early and often. Playing at times four different defenders on him, LA also employed a box-and-1, a zone, a trap, and a full-court press – in the first quarter alone.
Against a constantly shifting defense, it may very well have been that MDA hoped to dictate the action, by forcing Los Angeles to contend with a look they hadn’t yet encountered in the series.
While the motives behind the Rockets’ move may remain unclear, what is clear, is that the Lakers’ success came as a result of a coaching staff willing to change and experiment. Coming on the heels of the Milwaukee Bucks elimination, following their refusal to adjust at all, Frank Vogel’s ability to change schemes and rotations, while still creating buy-in from his players should be lauded.
Armed with a roster as top-heavy as any in the league, LA’s floor remains relatively stable given the guaranteed production of James and Davis but possesses a ceiling that fluctuates with a supporting cast largely dependent on Vogel placing them in optimal positions.
That he’s succeeded so far, may have the Rockets feeling a little less confident.