Based on Houston’s 93-92 win over Dallas, the Rockets look like a topsy-turvy Mike D’Antoni team. That’s because the frenetic offense habitually preached by D’Antoni’s was sluggish while the defense was unusually sharp.
Of course, any analysis of Houston’s game plan must necessarily focus on James Harden.
On numerous sequences Harden brought the ball across the timeline and simply hoisted a shot without thinking of making a pass. Most of these hot-shots were treys, and he only bagged 3-9 of these.
He may not be the quickest point guard in the league, but Harden is still an excellent, willing and alert passer. Four of his seven assists came when he found open three-point shooters. The other three came on interior passes to Nene that resulted in layups.
In addition, eight of Harden’s passes came to naught when various teammates missed wide-open shots.
He did, however, commit eight turnovers, five on bad passes (three of which were certainly catchable), one when he tried to force his dribble through a triple-team, plus he was simply ripped twice by Wesley Matthews.
In any event, Harden is the only good passer on the team.
Whether he passed or not, Houston’s half-court offense didn’t show much off-ball movement, emphasizing instead quick shots and isos.
Moreover, the Rockets rarely looked to push the ball, choosing to let Harden walk with the rock into the attack zone. And, aside from occasional screens and hand-offs, Houston’s half-court sets were slow-motion-quick-shooting versions of the pants-on-fire helter-skelter offense that D’Antoni’s teams executed in Phoenix.
Indeed, it’s a nice adjustment from Steve Nash’s quickness to Harden’s powerhouse game.
Harden, himself, scored 22 of his 28 total points on 26 isos and was 8-23 from the field overall. It should be noted that Matthews did a terrific job in containing Harden. At the same time, with the score knotted at 92 and just a few ticks left in the game, Harden beat Matthews on an off-ball change-of-direction cut. After he received the pass, Harden was fouled at the rim with 0.1 seconds left — and made the second of two free throws for the win.
With Dirk Nowitzki out with some kind of stomach problem, the Mavericks’ offense lacked a go-to focal point. Even so, they ran multiple strong and (mostly) weak-side screens usually for Matthews, J.J. Barea and Harrison Barnes.
Since Harden switched on virtually every screen he faced, he was seldom directly challenged in one-on-one situations. When he was, Matthews netted seven points and Deron Williams bagged a triple.
Otherwise, Harden played admirable post-up defense, effectively bodied his opponent in defending cross-paint cuts, occasionally negotiated his way through double-screens (creating a turnover) and generally offered timely help.
In fact, his defense was less than stellar on only two sequences — when, looking to help on ball penetration, he wandered too far from Williams and was out of position when a kick-out pass found Williams open. Also, Harden got lost on a combo screen in the paint.
Overall, this was the best defense Harden has played since he’s been in the league. Credit for this — and also for the energetic defensive effort by all the Rockets — goes to assistant coach, Jeff Bzdelik. And to D’Antoni for hiring Bzdelik and letting him do his thing.
In sum, Harden is a big-time scorer but not really a dependable shooter. There’s too much pressure on Harden to create points one way or another and, subsequently, the Rockets’ half-court sets are generally predictable.
For sure, Houston will emerge as one of the top scoring teams in the NBA, but the outcome of their season will depend on their (admittedly improved) defense.
Watch this space for further developments.