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Examining the Houston Rockets’ pick and roll between James Harden and Dwight Howard

When Houston Rockets brass made its free agency pitch to Dwight Howard this past summer, many of the details of that meeting were later leaked.  One point of emphasis upon which management stressed was the synergistic potential of Howard with James Harden, in the pick and roll.  The thinking went that because Howard was a year or so removed from being the best pick and roll finisher in the league, and Harden was statistically one of the best pick and roll ball-handlers, the two players together could form a devastating combination.

In Games 1 and 2 of this series, if we saw the two superstars collaborate on that aforementioned set at all, I don’t remember it.  But in Game 3, we–and the Blazers–were treated to a few doses of Howard/Harden, early on.  Predictably, Portland showed no signs of stopping the play as on almost every attempt, something positive occurred (Howard lost the ball on one play because Harden bounced the pass to him rather than lobbing it.)  Curiously, down the stretch late in the game, we never saw the play run again.

The pick and roll is the simplest play in basketball.  It is also one of the most impossible to defend, depending upon who all is involved.

1

The play begins with Harden setting up inside, rather than uptop, with Howard feeding him.  This is crucial.  As you’ll see later, if the play is run from uptop, Howard would need to take a few dribbles upon receiving the pass, increasing the probability of error.  Posting up Harden keeps the play clean.

2

Howard comes and sets the pick but notice Lopez staying back.  There’s no chance in Hell here that he’s coming out to trap Harden.  Why?  Because the basket supports cost too damn much and being a good Blazers employee, he’s mindful of that: if Lopez leaves Howard all alone, there is a strong chance the Houston center tears the rim down completely.

Also in this snap, keep an eye on Aldridge (under the basket) leaking over a bit away from Asik; Mo Williams is also pretty worried as well, enough to where he won’t have the reaction time to rotate to Beverley.  More on this later.

3

Harden turns the corner and he has daylight.  Lopez still hasn’t met him because of those basket cost issues.  Harden could squeeze off a jumper right here, if he wanted.  Beverley is also wide open.  Furthermore, interestingly, notice Aldridge actively boxing out Asik already (see the arm extended?).  Aldridge is already anticipating some sort of Asik involvement in this play.

Harden gets closer, Lopez has no choice but to contest, and the rest here, as you saw in the video, is history.

Also notice Beverley, still completely wide open.  I’d put Daniels right there for another high percentage option.

What can the Blazers do to stop this?  Rather than having Mathews try to fight over the top of the pick with Lopez staying back, they could just switch coverage, but that leaves Mathews trying to contain Howard inside with Lopez alone with Harden – both advantageous to Houston.  They could try and trap Harden, leaving Howard alone at the rim.  If that happened, Aldridge would need to rotate, leaving Asik unaccounted for under the hoop.  Daniels, or whoever the corner man was, would still be wide open.  You get the point.

I understand you can’t run the same play every single trip down the court.  I get that and I’m not advocating for it.  But this pick and roll is something Houston has not run nearly enough, for whatever reason.  As Van Gundy explained (I cleverly kept the Van Gundy commentary from the video even though the play had expired because….who cares if I’m the guy advocating for this?) it puts your two best players in the direct line of action.

I also think, if you run this in crunch-time, you can get by with keeping Asik on the court.  I explained yesterday that I felt that as long as both Howard and Asik were neither fatigued or in foul trouble, neither should come out of the game.  We have to have both guys on the floor and we just have to find a way to make it work offensively.  Taking Asik off the court, with Howard having to guard Aldridge outside, leaves the basket completely undefended for Portland’s guards.  While the spacing on the other end, with Asik in, might be compromised, it’s not like the Rockets offense was running smoothly anyway without him.  With the pick and roll, at least Asik is a threat on the boards.

In conclusion, I’m begging the Rockets to run this play more.  Please guys.  I’m begging you.  Until they show they can stop it, just do it.

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About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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