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Houston, We Have Lift-Off: A Breakdown Of The Rockets’ Pick-And-Roll

Out of the 30 teams in the Association, less than a handful run the pick-and-roll as well as the Houston Rockets do. A lot of that has to do with the deadly combination of James Harden and Dwight Howard, as well as their mix of perimeter shooters, such as Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and Francisco Garcia. If the defense collapses, the ball quickly finds itself being swung around the perimeter, until it lands in the hands of a wide open Rocket. If the defense decides to play them honestly, Harden or Jeremy Lin take their chances of bulldozing their way to the rim in the hope of drawing a foul or getting a layup. And if that doesn’t work, they can always dump it off to the monstrous human-being that is Howard for a good look underneath the basket. Not a bad second option.

To be honest, given how effective they have been in those situations, it’s mind boggling that they don’t run more pick-and-rolls. Maybe they’re saving it for the Playoffs or maybe they truly believe that James Harden isolations are the way to go. Whatever it is, I don’t know.

But going back to them being good at running pick-and-rolls. On Wednesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Rockets opened the game with a wonderful play that ended up with Dwight getting a huge alley-oop from his partner in crime, James Harden. But they didn’t just go for your run-of-the-mill pick-and-roll. Instead, they ran Harden off of a series of screens – giving him several options to work off of – and put him in a position to do what he does best: Get a bucket.

Step One: The Set-up

Jeremy Lin brings the ball over half-court and the Rockets set up in this weird formation: Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard are at either elbow, James Harden is on the right wing and Chandler Parsons is near the baseline on the opposite side. But this isn’t by accident. Jones sets a back-screen on Harden, which isn’t intended to get him open. Instead, Harden just runs into Anthony Davis to take him out of the play, giving Jones an opportunity to catch the ball in front of the three point line.

Step Two: Options, Options, Options

Parsons is now in the corner and Lin is on his way to joining him. After setting a light screen on Davis, Harden cuts diagonally to the left wing and curls around Howard’s screen for a chance of getting a backdoor cut to the basket. However, Eric Gordon goes under the screen, which prevents that from happening. No worries, though, because the Rockets have a backup plan.

Step Three: Plan B

Harden quickly stops and traces his steps back to where he was before, going back over Howard’s screen to get the ball from Jones. While this is going on, Lin moves to where Harden was at the start of the play, to give the Rockets another shooter on the wing in case the defense collapses. Now, Harden and Howard have the entire left side of the court to themselves, which is all the space they need to get what they want.

Step Four: Too Easy

Howard sets a light screen on Gordon, which takes him out of the play and frees Harden up for a good look at the basket. Because Harden is so good at getting into the paint, finishing around the basket and drawing fouls, Jason Smith has to leave Howard to help out. However, Gordon isn’t able to switch and if he was, it wouldn’t do the Pelicans any good because there’s no way he’d stop Howard. To add to that, Aminu can’t help out too much, otherwise Parsons will be left for a wide-open corner three. The one person who should and could help out is Davis, but the play has been executed so quickly, that he fails to recognise what is going on.

The result: A huge alley-oop dunk for Dwight Howard.

Here’s a video of the play:

Pick-and-rolls have made up 16 percent of the Rockets’ offensive sets so far this season and if they want to continue being amongst the league’s best in that category, they’ll have to get creative. The play that they ran against the Pelicans on Wednesday is just one example of how they’ve been able to do that thus far and you should expect to see more sets like it coming from the Rockets over the next few months as they prepare themselves for a deep Playoff run.

Statistical support courtesy of MySynergySports.com.

Scott Rafferty