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Houston's improbable midrange winner

1/16/2014

NEW ORLEANS -- The Houston Rockets use an offensive formula they’ve been cultivating for years under their current regime: 3-pointers and rim shots. Everything in between is for suckers.

The Rockets attempted 35 field goals in the first half of their 103-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. Only four of the 35 occurred between eight feet from the basket and the 3-point line. The trend held throughout the game, as more than 80 percent of the Rockets' shots occurred in their sweet spots.

That is, until the final minute of play, when Old Man Midrange reared his head and the Rockets soared back in time. Two possessions yielded two isolation plays for James Harden, the first resulting in a pair of free throws that briefly gave the Rockets a one-point lead, the second an ankle-breaking, step-back jumper that put the Rockets up 102-100.

But heroball this wasn’t. The Rockets didn’t run a 1-4 flat set with Harden pounding the ball into the hardwood until he felt inclined to put it on the floor. And though these shots didn’t originate from the Rockets’ preferred zones, each was cleverly crafted with one goal in mind: Take Harden’s primary defender, Eric Gordon, out of the play and draw a lesser perimeter defender on the switch. The way to accomplish that? A "small-small" pick-and-roll -- one guard picking for the other guard.

"Teams don't know how to guard it," Harden said. "Late in the game, either you’re going to switch it and put a smaller guy on me or they’re going to try to show and get confused. It worked tonight."

The first possession was more elaborate and took longer to materialize. It was a familiar NBA set: The point guard (Jeremy Lin) gets a staggered screen up top -- one screener a shooter (Harden), the other a big man who can roll (Dwight Howard). Harden pops while Howard rolls. The Pelicans defended it beautifully. Brian Roberts was able to fight over the first screen, allowing Gordon to stay home on Harden. When Roberts got hung up on the second screen, Jason Smith bought him some time, then quickly rotated back onto Howard. New Orleans survived the action with everyone in their right place.

That’s when Lin got crafty. He probed, reversed course and circled back out of the lane counterwise, with the sole intention of rubbing Roberts off Harden, thereby forcing Gordon to switch off of Harden and onto Lin.

The ploy worked. A pass from Lin went to Terrence Jones out on the perimeter, then Jones zipped it quickly to Harden. From there, Harden did his thing: one dribble, collision, whistle, two free throws, Rockets by one.

"I feel like it’s really hard to guard," Lin said. "You see, like, OKC [the Oklahoma City Thunder]. They run a 1-3 pick-and-roll, which is really hard to guard just because you’re not used to being in that position where they have to get out and show and do different coverages. They’re usually like sized enough where they’re, like, 'We can switch this.' But that gives us the matchup we want."

The game winner was more basic: Jones, Howard and Chandler Parsons along the baseline, with Harden at the foul line poised to set the 1-2 pick-and-roll for Lin.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams elaborated on the theme in Lin’s comment: It’s easy to say, "Don’t switch," but the consequences can be dire.

"The problem is the guy who’s setting [the screen] can shoot," Williams said. "If you try to hedge it and that guy pops, he’s going to get a shot. We wanted to try to keep Eric [Gordon] on him as much as we could. So we got [Brian Roberts] out of the game and put Austin [Rivers] in to try to give us some more size in case they do it again."

Harden set the screen on Rivers to Lin’s right (go figure) and, sure enough, when Lin turned the corner, there was Gordon waiting for him. Switch accomplished with relative ease.

"We run that play a lot, especially late in the game," Harden said. "We don’t really run it in the beginning of the game. They switched it, and Jeremy threw it back to me."

Harden explained that the element of surprise contributes to the 1-2’s effectiveness. Defenses tighten up in the closing minutes, which is one reason we see more switches late out on the perimeter. Nobody wants to be left out to dry. Switching poses the risk of a mismatch, but at least somebody picks up the ball handler.

Harden held the ball for a moment, thrust a head fake or two, then went right -- to his off hand.

"I was reading what the other four players were doing," Harden said. "They all stayed home. It was mano-a-mano."

Harden took one slick dribble, yanked the ball back as he thrust his arm forward at Rivers. Did it make contact? Hard to say. Harden then lurched back, with all the space in the Bayou to rise and shoot.

"[Harden] made a tough shot on Austin," Williams said. "Austin played him well. Austin thought he got pushed, but in that situation, you got to just play tough. You can’t even ask for the ref to bail you out in that situation. It’s just not going to happen."

With that, the team that’s driven the midrange jumper out of fashion won the game on a 21-footer.