The NBA season is finally rounding into something that makes sense: the Rockets and Celtics are no longer bad, the Clippers and Grizzlies are no longer elite, and the Warriors keep calmly counting down the days until their challenger never comes.
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In Game 1 we saw a Houston Rockets team who put an unhealthy reliance on James Harden isolations.
They had little to no off-ball movement and were ultimately beaten by a superior team – just as they were when they were eliminated by the Spurs and Warriors in their recent playoff appearances.
Today we saw the Houston Rockets that won 65 regular season games, finished comfortably atop the Western Conference and was ranked as the seventh best offense since the NBA/ABA merger in 1973.
However, despite the alterations that many called for Mike D’Antoni to make after the Warriors blew them out 119-106 at home, D’Antoni wowed to stick to the offensive principals that have got them this far. That is, the art of healthy isolation.
“We went from the wide open California offense to the triple threat. We changed everything up… No, we did exactly what we did (in game one),” said a sarcastic D’Antoni after todays series tying victory.
D’Antoni was right, the Rockets stuck to their identity which is isolation basketball… and it worked.
Isolation in basketball terms is when one player takes another player one-on-one off the dribble, while the other players draw their opponents to other spaces to give the ball-handler room to work.
When isolating, teams look to use pick and rolls in order to miss-match defenders where they see favourable match-ups and where they think they have an advantage – whether that be height, strength or speed.
It’s a simple yet effective method, and the Rockets have the necessary weapons – in James Harden and Chris Paul – to perfect it.
Of all the players whose teams are still competing in the playoffs and get over one isolation opportunity a game, Paul and Harden rank number one and two respectively for points per isolation possession (at 1.23 and 1.13).
They are also both adept floor generals – averaging over six assists per game in the post season – having the ability to find an open teammate if a double team is applied.
Basketball purists will say that you can never rely on one player to win a game off their own back, and that isolation basketball is doing just that. But the way the Rockets played today in comparison to their performance in Game 1 displays how vital teammates are to playing successful isolation basketball.
In Game 1 we saw an incredible solo act from James Harden. He had 41 points at over 50 per cent from both the field and the three-point line and seven assists. He was the only Rocket (apart from Nene who played seven minutes) with a positive plus minus. But this still wasn’t enough to out-do the incredible depth and team play of the Warriors.
Most of Harden’s points came from him switching onto a liability defender – either a Warriors big, or a one-legged Steph Curry – and taking them off the dribble for either a drive or his signature step-back three.
In tonight’s victory we saw a less incredible version of Harden, but a just as satisfying one for Rockets fans. Harden still went for an impressive 27 points – something we have come to expect from this season’s likely Most Valuable Player.
He came out aggressively as he did in Game 1 – scoring nine points in the first eight minutes of the game – before consciously picking his spots and looking to get teammates involved.
D’Antoni employed Harden in the same switching actions that we saw in game one. Except this time around, instead of role players PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon just standing in the corner watching Harden go to work, they kept the Warriors defenders on their toes by moving and cutting off the ball.
They did not allow help defenders to just disregard their presence on the court and smother Harden at the rim – which could be said for game one. They also put together much better production with 68 points on 73.3 per cent from the field, compared to their underwhelming 24 points in game one.
On multiple occasions, an offensive possession for the Rockets would start with Harden sizing up a defender and then driving to the basket, commanding the defences attention – as he did in game one.
Unlike game one, tonight when he kicked it out, Tucker, Ariza and Gordon would either make the three-point shot or make the pass to a teammate in a better position. This ball movement would force the Warriors to scramble on defence and eventually create an open shot for the Rockets.
We also saw the reason why the Rockets traded for Chris Paul during the offseason. Despite Paul looking respectable on the box score in Game 1 (23 points and three assists), he struggled to have a sizeable influence on the game. The Rockets were a seven-point worse team with Paul on the floor.
This was not the case today – the Rockets were a 13-point better team with Paul on the floor. He might have scored seven fewer points than he did in game one, however, he made timely plays and gave the Rockets the second ball-handler that they so desperately required.
When Harden went to the bench for the first part of the second quarter, the Rockets had an eight-point lead. When Harden returned, the Rockets still had an eight-point lead. Paul ran the show, getting teammates involved.
When Harden went to the bench in the third quarter, Paul sensed it was time for him to get involved. He utilised the same the pick and roll actions to force the Warriors to switch and then went to work on either a big or Curry.
He had 11 of his points in the third period. With Steph Curry not looking himself, there is an opportunity for Paul to take control of the point-guard battle as the series progresses.
It must also be noted that Eric Gordon was also crucial for the Rockets as an isolation ball-handler at times. He (to an extent) and Paul allowed Harden to get his rest – something that the Rockets could not afford to do in game one. Harden’s energy levels will be telling if the Rockets are serious about beating the Warriors and advancing to the finals.
Combine the superior, team-engaging isolation play with improved defence, hustle and fast break play and the Rockets got the result they wanted.
“We played harder, we got into them and they felt us physically… we did the job” said D’Antoni.
We’ve seen before that it takes more than one person to beat this Warriors team, and we saw it again during the first two games.
Even (arguably) the greatest player of this generation, LeBron James, couldn’t manage to get over the hump without a healthy Kyrie Irving and co – and still then he barely did.
Mike D’Antoni’s men stuck to what they knew – that was isolation basketball. But in order for this method to be victorious, they cannot afford to get one-dimensional as they did in game one.
Because if they do, the number one-ranked Warriors defence will thrive and their contrary, ball-moving offense will punish the Rockets on the other end (don’t make me mention Kevin Durant).
The series is tied at 1-1 going to Oakland. If Chris Paul and the rest of the Rockets gang have James Harden’s back, then the healthy isolation-style Rockets have a chance to make their first finals appearance since they won in 1995.