The chess match: Clippers vs Rockets

A popular opinion I’ve seen expressed is that the Rockets’ game against the Cavaliers on Sunday was their most entertaining of the season. While it has a strong case, for sheer strategic richness my vote has to go to another game played in the last week – their matchup with the Clippers. Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan are a lethal pick-and-roll tandem and Doc Rivers has designed plenty of different ways for them to unlock their potential. On the other side of the court, the Rockets have been doing a great job on the defensive end this season and had a number of different approaches to defending it. It all added up to a riveting cat-and-mouse game, and in this post I’m going to play it back and show you how the two teams continually tried to outsmart each other by shifting their strategies.

Act 1: The Show Must Go On

The Rockets started out using Motiejunas to guard Jordan and show on the pick and roll. D-Mo is very good at doing this and recovering to his man and the tactic worked out very well with the Clippers failing to score on all of these possessions. Note though the weakness of this defensive strategy – in the first and third clips Jones is forced to rotate over to Jordan to prevent the lob, leaving Spencer Hawes wide open at the three point line. Fortunately Hawes was off in this game and missed both times, but if he’s making that shot the Rockets would probably have to try something different.

Act 2: Reading to the Baby

After some initial failures, the Clippers decided to change things up by using Glen Davis as the roll man. Big Baby presents a different challenge because of his pick-and-pop threat, and it was put to good use in this sequence. Chris Paul is focused mainly on Josh Smith’s choices in all three clips. First, he sees Smith leaving Davis to ‘ice’ the pick-and-roll. Smith contains Paul’s drive but leaves Davis wide open for the jumper. On the next possession Smith has learned his lesson and sticks to Davis. This fares no better as Paul uses the freedom he’s been given to drive, draw D-Mo’s rotation and then put up the lob for Jordan (watching Jordan dunk is spectacular, I must say). Having seen that sticking to Big Baby is a mistake, Josh switches back to trying to contain Paul. Once again Paul reads this and feeds Davis for the open jumper, but this time he misses badly. On balance this is an effective play for the Clippers but if defended well relies on Davis hitting mid-range jumpers, which he doesn’t do consistently enough to be a true threat.

Act 3: Going Under

The Clippers go back to a simple Paul-Jordan screen action, and the Rockets have decided to change things up to keep CP3 guessing. Now instead of showing on the screen, Motiejunas drops back and gives Paul’s defender space to come underneath. This works well in the first two clips, where they manage to catch Paul in two minds. The standard response to a defender going under a screen is to drill a jumper in their face, but in both cases Paul doesn’t recognise what’s going on until it is too late to do so. You can see in each one the moment where he thinks about pulling up – in the second one he actually surrenders his dribble as a result. But the perils of this approach are made clear in the third clip. Terry gets caught on DeAndre Jordan’s screen (technically an illegal one), giving Paul space to pull up. Motiejunas is forced to come out to contest and that leaves Jordan unimpeded to roll to the hoop and catch the lob. Oh dear. I think this is defense the Rockets have to use selectively against Paul – he’s too smart not to start picking up on it if you go to it often and his jump shot is good enough that he’ll make you pay for it. In small doses though it seems to work well provided the point guard can navigate the pick properly.

Act 4: Run It Again!

One of the things that made researching this article so fun was seeing how often the Clippers would repeat their plays. If Chris Paul sees one he likes, he will signal to run it again the next time up the court. You can’t see it in the clips above, but he’s made that motion several times here as they ran this play three times in a row. And so they should, because it seemed to be incredibly effective. The basic idea is to disrupt the Rockets’ planned coverage by setting a pick on Jordan’s man before he comes out to screen for Paul. It works to perfection in the first clip, as Motiejunas is too far away to show and check Paul’s momentum. He manages to help slow Paul’s drive, but in doing so leaves Jordan free for the nasty alley-oop. Because the Clippers are playing with only one big man, there is nobody around to rotate onto Jordan – Harden would be the natural choice but he is preoccupied with sticking to Redick as he drifts out to the three point line. When they run it a second time the Rockets are ready and send Terry under the screen, only for Paul to read it and counter by draining a jumper (there’s a nice added wrinkle where Redick catches Motiejunas with a back-screen, but D-Mo does a good job of fighting through it).

As we saw in Act 2, when Smith is in the game he likes to sink and contain the ball-handler in pick and roll situations. Clip three sees him try this, but Paul draws him and dishes to Jordan, who should score but somehow airballs a wide-open layup. The Clippers went back to the play to end the half and get a perfect lob out of it, only for DeAndre to blow the finish. This play is brilliant and when the Clippers are playing with four shooters around Jordan is pretty much impossible to guard. They should have scored all four times they used it, and I’m surprised they didn’t go back to it in the second half.

Act 5: Double Trouble

Towards the end of the first half the Clippers tried something new to catch the Rockets by surprise – a double pick-and-roll where both bigs set a single enormous screen for Paul. The first time they run it they have the element of surprise on their side – Smith picks up Paul and the initial action looks to be contained, only for Jones to miss the fact he needed to stay with Jordan as he rolls. While it’s true he has to pick his poison between the roll and a Big Baby jumper, it’s pretty clear which is the correct choice and it wasn’t the one he went for.

The Clippers, as is their wont, give the Rockets a second look at it and this time they defend it correctly – Jones sinks to disrupt Jordan’s path to the hoop, leaving Smith to take over on Paul and Ariza to recover to Davis. The play is snuffed out and really this is how it should be defended every time. When people say Jones is still not quite the finished article defensively, it’s plays like this that they are referring to. He needs to be able to make the correct decision the first time he sees a play rather than needing to see it once before he knows what to do. Come playoff time he’s not going to have this luxury.

Act 6: The Trials and Tribulations of Trevor Ariza

In the second half the Rockets tried switching things up and put Ariza on Paul for long stretches. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out too well as Ariza really struggled to work his way through DeAndre Jordan’s picks. In all the plays above, Ariza ends up trailing his man and there’s a defensive breakdown as a result (Jones cleans up with a nice block in one, but that doesn’t excuse the initial error). The theory of putting a long armed defender like Ariza on point guards is a good one, but if they’re going to do it regularly the Rockets need him to do a better job of avoiding getting hung up on screens. Pay particular attention to the last play – you’ll see that Trevor is caught completely by surprise as Paul goes away from Jordan and uses a pick from Redick instead. Terry mistakenly sticks to Redick, letting Paul get free. He draws a rotation from Harden and then kicks to the corner for an open three.

Comedic Interlude

Chris Paul auditions for Shaqtin’ A Fool with this no-look pass out of bounds! But eagle-eyed viewers will note that the way he gets there is a mirror image of the last play from above. The Redick screen again sees Terry make the wrong choice and catches Paul’s defender (in this case Harden) giving CP3 a clean run a the basket. Smith does a good job of rotating to contest but really Paul could have made the pass earlier than he did and avoided having to throw it behind his head. This is another play I’m surprised the Clippers didn’t run a few more times – they didn’t get any points out of their first two goes at it but they got exactly the looks they wanted and the Rockets showed no signs of being able to guard it properly.

Final Act: Switchcraft

As the game wore on, the Rockets settled on a new and final strategy. Instead of asking Paul’s man to fight his way past the impenetrable wall that is DeAndre Jordan, they just switched the pick-and-rolls, trusting their mobile big men to be able to contain CP3 enough to neutralise the effectiveness of the play. As you can see, in each case the big man does a good job of preventing Paul from getting too deep into the paint. However, having done so they then showed lapses in snuffing out the secondary action in the first three clips. First Ariza and Smith have a miscommunication when switching back that allows Jordan to get open underneath. Then Smith gets caught out by Davis’ roll on a secondary pick-and-roll, allowing him to get inside position and steal the rebound. And in the third clip Paul and Jordan flow straight into an exquisite second pick-and-roll that the Rockets have no chance of stopping – Smith is caught completely unawares and Jordan strolls in for another thunderous dunk.

The Rockets do a better job in the last two clips. Harden is in great position to curtail Jordan’s roll, which allows Brewer to recover to Crawford and shut down the play. And finally Harden switches onto Paul and forces him into a tough fade-away. It feels like the switching strategy was the right call in all of these scenarios. The key is to keep the concentration after the first switch – defenders are going to find themselves in unfamiliar roles as the play continues and they need to be able to adapt and make smart plays to maintain their defensive structure.

Overall, it felt like a pretty even contest between the thunderous dynamism of the Clippers and the adaptive defense of the Rockets. I was very impressed by the number of different wrinkles the Clippers have in their toolbox to continually show opponents different looks, although I was surprised they didn’t try to alternate which plays they ran instead of using them in blocks. The Rockets showcased their versatility by putting out a number of different defensive looks and seem to be doing a good job of making the most of their long limbs and mobile feet. It was a fascinating back-and-forth between the two teams in what was a potential playoff preview. The question is, if it came down to it in a playoff series which side would get the upper hand?

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