In recent years I’ve observed basketball as a game of strategic calculation more so than spontaneous aesthetic beauty. How are teams defending the pick-and-roll? What offensive movement is taking place on the weak-side while the ball sits on the opposite wing? Who is picking up who in transition?
Automatically, these are the questions I ask myself while watching an NBA game, whether it be with friends over beers in a noisy sports bar, or by myself, sitting on a couch balancing Tweetdeck and a sandwich on my lap. Years ago it was different. These technical aspects of the sport were still important, but at the time I wasn’t chronicling any action in written form (which makes watching it a much more contemplative experience).
At one point I watched basketball more for pure enjoyment than anything else (though that reasoning still makes up a huge chunk as to why I tune in); guys like David Robinson and Tim Hardaway doing things with the ball that made me throw my feet in the air and squeal every time they were scheduled for national television.
For extended stretches, watching the Houston Rockets this season has brought me back to how it used to be. I still approach their games from a critical viewpoint—taking notes on what makes Houston’s transition offense so successful and why they struggle on the defensive end whenever Omer Asik takes a seat on the bench—but the prodigious talent who is James Harden has me acting like a kid again, giggling and doing real life SMH motions ad nauseum.
My absolute favorite action that pops up half a dozen, if not more, times per game? The pocket pass. Now that Steve Nash has become an ephemeral shell of his former self, nobody in basketball delivers it on the money like Harden, and nobody makes it look easier. This single move is appreciated more than any other, equally, through my eyes as a fan and a writer.
For all the reasons Daryl Morey gave him a five-year maximum value contract, Harden’s ability to split two pick-and-roll defenders with a beautifully timed bounce pass is probably the least appreciated. Personally, it’s my favorite part of watching him play. It brings out the inner child in me who loves basketball for all the simplest reasons.
When Harden recognizes the roll man defender is committed to either getting the ball out of his hands or forcing a difficult shot, he slides a pass right to his open teammate, instantly putting him in a position to score. It’s lovely. Not only does Harden refuse to force the issue and settle for a low percentage shot, but most of the time he gets teammates involved without even looking in their direction. (Seriously, how do you defend this guy?)
For those who don’t know what a pocket pass is, it’s when a ball-handler hits a rolling screener with a bounce pass from his hip. When done right, the play becomes basketball caviar. I’ve compiled five clips for your viewing pleasure below. Enjoy, whether you prefer taking basketball in as an analyst or pleasure seeking fan.