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James Harden Pick and Rolls Through the Rockets Defense

Wednesday night's loss to the Rockets was a painful lesson in preparedness and the Thunder would do well to remember those lessons. However, one positive that we can take away from it was that for most of the 4th quarter, when James Harden was actively involved in the offense OKC produced points on 13 of their first 15 possessions. That is...pretty good. We previously had examined how the Thunder employ various high screen play calls in order to get their offensive initiators free, so let's take a look at how the Thunder enabled Harden to produce so efficiently.

Royce Young at Daily Thunder helpfully already created the video we need, so watch here most of the offensive plays that Harden was involved in during the 4th:

Let's go through each one and see what we can glean:

  1. Play 1. Harden uses the high screen on the wing from Nick Collison. It was no accident that Nazr Mohammed and Collison switched roles here. Collison and Harden have exceptional screen and roll chemistry together, consistently nailing the right timing and passing angle to produce points. Notice that Reggie Jackson (guarded by Courtney Lee) on the right wing positions himself right at the 3-point line and literally does not move for eight seconds while he waits for the pass. The reason why he is so wide open despite never moving is because Harden attacks the middle of the court and forces Lee to make a choice - close the lane and stop Harden's drive, or stick with his man Jackson. Lee makes the right choice, but Jackson makes him pay. The entire sequence is standard Thunder play calling, because Collison sets the high screen and then fades away from the rim thereby removing himself from the play. Collison actually makes the correct move here, because if he were to try and roll to the rim, he would have brought his own defender back into the play.

  2. Play 2 (0:18). Mohammed plays Collison's role here, and you can see how he is not as comfortable as Nick in setting up Harden. Harden cannot get the screen he wants, so drops the ball off to Mohammed. Even though the play is busted, Mohammed still makes the smart move in attacking the rim rather than waiting for a guard to bail him out.

  3. Play 3 (0:38). This play is difficult to see because the network's camera work misses the initiation of the play. It looks though like Collison set a high screen at the top of the key (since he's standing way out there when the shot goes up) and Harden takes the ball straight to the rim. The help is late, and he has an easy dish to Mohammed at the rim. Again, this is standard OKC offense, but run extremely well, so the Rockets are going to have to make an adjustment to stop it.

  4. Play 4 (1:00). (Kendrick Perkins is now in the game and fills in for Collison at the high screen. Now things start to get interesting. Because of Harden's success on the previous trips, the Rockets defense has started to lose its focus in defending OKC, and instead is preoccupied with Harden specifically. Check out this frame at 1:18:
    By virtue of one mediocre screen, Harden has four of the five Rockets defenders focused on him. Serge Ibaka has faded to the corner just long enough to pull his man Luis Scola from the rim so that when Harden charges down the lane, Scola cannot simply stay under the rim to protect it, but must make a decision to stop the ball penetration. As soon as Scola commits upward, Ibaka cuts back toward the rim and receives the easy pass for the jam. This play is a perfect example of a defense that has over-committed itself, a perfect progression set up by the previous offensive plays.

    Also, to reiterate, four defenders are looking at Harden. This means that the team's two All-Stars (and 52 ppg) are being almost completely ignored. Think about that.

  5. Play 5 (1:25). This next play really underscores how badly the Rockets defense is broken at this point. Once again Harden sets up near half-court and waits for Perkins to come to him for the screen. Check this out, because this is beautiful:
    In anticipation for the high screen that is causing so many problems, the Rockets did not even notice that there was NO screen at all. Perkins smartly cut it short; it wasn't even a legitimate slip-screen. The Rockets simply anticipated the screen would come, and so found themselves in a very weak trap position and fail completely to cover Perkins. Perkins makes the right move in flashing to the top of the lane, giving Harden an easy target. Perkins takes the pass, pivots, and then with two options available, makes the correct play in kicking the ball baseline to Ibaka for the open jump shot.

    This is the very definition of a constraint play - the Thunder are preying on the Rockets' complete over-aggressiveness on the ball, and once the defense over-commits OKC attacks the lane, opening up viable scoring options.

  6. Play 6 (1:38). Just wait, it gets even better. Once again, the Thunder run the exact same play as before, with Perkins coming out to set the high screen, but breaking it off before he even gets close to Harden.

    This time, he drags Scola out high, and Scola has no chance to cover anyone out here. The trap is even worse than before, and Harden has a clear path to deliver the ball to Perkins again. This time, Perkins does a better job at getting lower into the lane, which pulls Patrick Patterson up just high enough for Perkins to deliver the ball to Ibaka. Ibaka slides in behind Patterson for the slam.

  7. Play 7 (1:49). In this play, with the Rockets defense in complete disarray, Harden unfortunately makes a mistake, and this may have been one of the first reasons why Scott Brooks went back to his original offensive set. Harden is setting up in the exact same spot again, but:
    Harden gets impatient. You can see that Perkins (red arrow) is still on the baseline when Harden starts his move, so the play that worked so well before is not going to work this time because it has not been allowed to develop.

    Instead, Harden angles to get into the soft spot where the white circle is, but you can see that the Rockets defense is in much better shape by not having to worry about the high screener. Even if Harden beats his man Lee, the two Rockets up-men can easily shift to cut off the lane, and the Rockets big men under the rim do not have to move at all.

    This ends up being a pure ISO play for Harden, and while he almost pulls it off, it underscores two of the things that pain me the most. 1) The Thunder just didn't exhibit enough patience to try to make the play work again, thereby cutting short their clever sequences and making the defense's job easier; and 2) the play essentially turns both Durant and Westbrook into spot-up shooters. OKC is wasting the talents of two of the 10 best players in the league by just having them watch the play unfold.

  8. Play 8 (2:03). In the final sequence in the clip, we again see the same play set up. This time Harden does correctly wait for the screen, but the Rockets finally sniff it out and do not try to trap Harden, but rather Lee correctly drops back with Perkins so he cannot receive the pass. And this is where the Thunder's offensive set essentially ends.
    With the initial screen fake failing, OKC looks like it has no second option ready to run. Ibaka tries to set a screen for Harden, but the angle and spacing is so bad that it is clear that his attempt was impromptu and not planned. That said, at least Ibaka actually moved. Nobody else did, and so with seven seconds left the Thunder essentially set up the Rockets to play straight-up man-to-man defense with no mismatches to worry about. The Rockets defense forces Harden into a terrible angle and a terrible shot and get the 24-second violation.
And thus the Harden at the point run ended. The next sequence saw Westbrook and Durant go back to their two-man game, which produced a good but missed shot, and Harden essentially shifted into the Westbrook role where he was standing at the perimeter waiting for a pass.

The sequence of plays is illustrative of how effective Harden can be, but it also reveals something else. It shows us that the Thunder still need to be able to think beyond the first sequence to capitalize on the defense's adjustments.

The point of the constraint play, or a play designed to force the defense to lay off the over-aggression and reset itself, is not simply to get some easy buckets by using the defense's aggression against them. Rather, the play should be designed so that when the defense finally corrects itself, the offense can go back to running better offensive sets closer to the rim.

To conclude, this was a great sequence performed by Harden right up until the end, when it seemed like the Thunder did not have a next-level sequence to keep the pressure on the Rockets. So for next time, let's look for:
  1. Capitalization on defensive overplay of the ball;
  2. The Thunder to have a better plan in place when the defense finally gives up its over-aggression;
  3. The weak side players to contribute more to the offense than just stand at the 3-point line waiting for a pass.