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Huq’s Pen: Heroball this was not

  • First, real nice to see two guys I’ve really been pulling for in Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas come up huge last night in the victory.  Anything Motiejunas gives is a plus as the hope here is that he just continues to get consistent minutes.  Jones, on the other hand, had six blocks with 25 points, often putting the ball on the floor and taking it straight to the rim.  There’s no doubting Jones’ future; at the same time, he still has quite a ways to go before the Rockets can trust him in a playoff series.
  • You could see last night why I’ve been so intrigued by Eric Gordon in the past, even this summer when his name was linked with the Rockets.  He’s tantalizing offensively and stout at the other end (giving James Harden fits)…but the man just simply cannot stay healthy.  You could get him for pennies on the dollar, in terms of value, but I can’t see the Rockets ever touching that contract.  But in a world where Eric Gordon were healthy and motivated, you could do far worse than he and Harden on the wings.  That world does not exist.

Last night may have been a turning point, though I’ll step back as I’ve said that in regards to many things that didn’t take fruition.  Readers of this page know that I’ve railed frequently against heroball, even in the rare occasions when it has led to a win.  Many have misunderstood me, somehow taking my stance to mean that I don’t want Harden to take the last shot or have the ball in his hands at the end.  In actuality, heroball–which the Rockets employ at the end of every close game–is when the Rockets run a 1-4 flat with Harden up top beyond the three-point line, letting him pound the air out of the ball while all five defensive men set and watch him.  It usually results in an off-balance stepback.  Sometimes it goes in.  Usually, it doesn’t work, as evidenced by the Rockets’ disastrous offensive crunch-time efficiency as outlined by Richard Li some weeks ago.  Last night, what the Rockets ran was not heroball.

This piece last night from ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz is pretty much required reading as he dissects the anatomy of last night’s game-clinching moments:

But heroball this wasn’t. The Rockets didn’t run a 1-4 flat set with Harden pounding the ball into the hardwood until he felt inclined to put it on the floor. And though these shots didn’t originate from the Rockets’ preferred zones, each was cleverly crafted with one goal in mind: Take Harden’s primary defender, Eric Gordon, out of the play and draw a lesser perimeter defender on the switch. The way to accomplish that? A “small-small” pick-and-roll — one guard picking for the other guard.

“Teams don’t know how to guard it,” Harden said. “Late in the game, either you’re going to switch it and put a smaller guy on me or they’re going to try to show and get confused. It worked tonight.”

The first possession was more elaborate and took longer to materialize. It was a familiar NBA set: The point guard (Jeremy Lin) gets a staggered screen up top — one screener a shooter (Harden), the other a big man who can roll (Dwight Howard). Harden pops while Howard rolls. The Pelicans defended it beautifully. Brian Roberts was able to fight over the first screen, allowing Gordon to stay home on Harden. When Roberts got hung up on the second screen, Jason Smith bought him some time, then quickly rotated back onto Howard. New Orleans survived the action with everyone in their right place.

That’s when Lin got crafty. He probed, reversed course and circled back out of the lane counterwise, with the sole intention of rubbing Roberts off Harden, thereby forcing Gordon to switch off of Harden and onto Lin.

The ploy worked. A pass from Lin went to Terrence Jones out on the perimeter, then Jones zipped it quickly to Harden. From there, Harden did his thing: one dribble, collision, whistle, two free throws, Rockets by one.

“I feel like it’s really hard to guard,” Lin said. “You see, like, OKC [the Oklahoma City Thunder]. They run a 1-3 pick-and-roll, which is really hard to guard just because you’re not used to being in that position where they have to get out and show and do different coverages. They’re usually like sized enough where they’re, like, ‘We can switch this.’ But that gives us the matchup we want.”

The game winner was more basic: Jones, Howard and Chandler Parsons along the baseline, with Harden at the foul line poised to set the 1-2 pick-and-roll for Lin.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams elaborated on the theme in Lin’s comment: It’s easy to say, “Don’t switch,” but the consequences can be dire.

“The problem is the guy who’s setting [the screen] can shoot,” Williams said. “If you try to hedge it and that guy pops, he’s going to get a shot. We wanted to try to keep Eric [Gordon] on him as much as we could. So we got [Brian Roberts] out of the game and put Austin [Rivers] in to try to give us some more size in case they do it again.”

Harden set the screen on Rivers to Lin’s right (go figure) and, sure enough, when Lin turned the corner, there was Gordon waiting for him. Switch accomplished with relative ease.

Harden goes on to be quoted as saying that they run the switch pretty frequently to close games – I’d wager serious money that the tape would indicate differently.  Could this be a turning point?  Again, to those who have misunderstood: I want Harden to have the ball in his hands and take the last shot.  But what I’ve been begging for is some sort of misdirection/action to make that setup easier, whether that be this 1-2 pick and roll, a basic Howard-Harden pick and roll, or just a simple handoff to Harden at the elbow.  Any of that is fine.  What isn’t fine and has usually led to losses are the 1-4 flats from up top.  Let’s hope that this is the start of something because crunch time offense has been one of the two biggest problems (defense being the other) plaguing the Rockets.

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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.