With teams like the Los Angeles Lakers still searching for an identity at this point of the season, the Rockets have solidified their standing as a high-octane offensive team that doesn't slow down for its opposition.
The Houston Rockets don’t run very many set plays. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote earlier this season:
Learning the playbook is not an issue, because Houston doesn't really have a playbook. "We don't have to stop practice and say, 'OK, now let's go over our plays,'" [Rockets assistant coach Kelvin] Sampson says. "We don't have any plays. During the flow of the game, very rarely do we run an actual play."
The first option for Houston is always the fast break. If they can't manage that, the Rockets essentially just shift into pick-and-roll mode. There are a few pick-and-roll variations, and Houston can use two or three of them on the same possession — the Harden/Asik pick-and-roll in the middle; the Lin/Asik or Parsons/Asik pick-and-roll on the wing as a second option; a Carlos Delfino/Asik pick-and-roll as a crisis third option; and various sets that have Harden fly off two screens on the right wing, take a dribble handoff at the right elbow, and then run what amounts to a high-speed pick-and-roll toward the middle as a shooter — usually Delfino — fades to the right corner.
Because of this, it was unsurprising that three of the biggest plays in Houston’s Sunday night win over the San Antonio Spurs came as a result not of well-crafted sets, but of clever improvisation and logical execution.
Trailing by four points with just under a minute-and-a-half left in the game, Harden chased Danny Green down the right side of the court while defending a three-on-two fast break. If Harden lets Green get a basket here—especially an and-one—the game is pretty close to over, even with Houston’s high-powered offense.
Green gets the ball just outside the three-point line and attacks the rim. Harden challenges the shot but doesn’t foul, and the ball caroms off the backboard out toward the three-point line, where Harden grabs it and takes off. Now it’s a three-on-two in the other direction.
Just as Lowe described, the first option is the fast break. Harden carries the ball over the half-court line with 22 seconds left on the shot clock, and he’s got three options.
He can attack the rim and try to draw a foul on Manu Ginobili or Matt Bonner (off screen under the rim). He can pull the ball out and reset the offense, waiting for one of those drag screens from Asik. Or, he can do what he does, drift over to the left side of the court, drawing three Spurs defenders away from the only other real scoring threat on the break with him—Parsons.
Harden fades, draws and swings, and Parsons’ shot from the wing goes up with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. Swish.
Two Parker free throws and a timeout later, Houston has the ball out of bounds in the frontcourt. This is a scenario where you’ll see a lot of coaches draw up either an isolation clear out for their best player at the top of the key or on the wing, or a complicated set with lots of moving parts. Houston does neither.
This is all very simple. Rather than designing a set play to free Harden so someone like Parsons or Patrick Beverly could inbound the ball to him, coach Kevin McHale has Harden take the ball out of bounds. There’s a reason coaches at every level always say things like “Watch the inbounds man” in situations like this. Once the ball is passed in, that man often becomes the most dangerous player on the court.
Here, rather than clearing out for Harden at the top of the key where the entire defense could lock in on him and react to his dribble, the Rockets are able to get him the ball on the move toward the middle of the court, with space between the ball and the defender. He simply inbounds the ball to Asik at the elbow extended, and then takes one of those dribble handoffs that works as a modified pick-and-roll which Lowe described above.
Harden gets a relatively open look at a three, and Kawhi Leonard fouls him on the way up. In 19 seconds, Houston cuts a six-point lead to one.
About a minute later, after two San Antonio misses, the Rockets have the ball sideline out of bounds yet again. Again, McHale has Harden take the ball out of bounds rather than creating a set play for him to get open and have someone pass him the ball.
Again, rather than running a clear out isolation or complicated set play, McHale simply has Harden pass the ball to Asik on the wing, and quickly take a handoff coming toward the middle of the court.
The Rockets even come out with the exact same alignment. Harden inbounding, Asik at the right elbow, Parsons on the right block, Patrick Beverly at the left elbow and Carlos Delfino on the left block.
Asik play-acts like he’s going to come set a pin-down screen for Parsons on the block, but then sneaks out to the three point line just as he did on the previous play. Harden immediately enters the fray and gets a handoff from Asik just above the three-point line, and Asik’s handoff doubles as a screen.
Leonard gets knocked slightly off course by the screen and Harden turns the corner easily, and is able to get to the free-throw line. He stops short there and pulls up, trying to draw contact from Leonard on one of his patented shot-flops. The gambit doesn’t work, as Leonard is able to avoid hitting him, but the shot somehow goes in anyway, and Houston takes home a win.