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High-Low and the Rockets’ struggles with fronting

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs

If your team runs an offence that features a heavy dose of post play, then one thing you’re going to need in your playbook is something to counter teams who try to front your star big man on the low block. Rockets fans from the days of Yao Ming will remember just how frustrating it was to watch teams unable to get the ball to him in the post because of just this strategy. McHale and the Rockets coaching staff have got the team using a high-low action to beat the fronting defender, but sadly it has not been a complete success so far. In this article, I will breakdown what the action looks like and why it doesn’t always work.

Here is what the Rockets’ high-low action looks like when it works properly, from a game early in the season:

Howard sets up on the block and is fronted by Kanter, preventing the entry pass from Harden. To get around this, Terrence Jones cuts to the free throw line. This draws his man away from helping out on Howard and frees up Dwight’s route to the basket. Jones receives the pass and throws the ball up for a highlight-reel lob.

This action is a great fit for the team when they are playing through Howard on the block. He is excellent at catching the ball in flight and dunking, and the Rockets have a bevy of highly skilled power forwards capable of delivering him the ball on target.

A key part of this play is that the pass to Howard is a lob. To illustrate why, we’ll see what happens when the power forward tries to throw a bounce pass:

Here, D-Mo is the player who flashes to the nail. Instead of trying to lob like Jones did, he attempts to throw in a quick bounce pass to Howard and it gets snuffed out. His first mistake was that he didn’t square up to the basket before throwing the pass. This is essential because it forces his defender to close out to contest what looks like a shot. Instead, his man (Zeller) is able to hang around near Howard and disrupt the pass. It also neutralises Howard’s athleticism – a well delivered lob is unguardable because Dwight can catch it so close to the rim. But throwing in the bounce pass is a bit like a big man bringing the ball down after a rebound: put it where others can get to it and the ball will be taken from you.

D-Mo has since learned to lob when he plays this role. He still rushes the pass slightly in this example, but Babbitt comes out to him anyway so it doesn’t matter:

Using this action is all well and good when Dwight is posting up, but of course he isn’t the only post player on the team any more. Motiejunas’ skills on the block have meant teams have started to front him too, and unfortunately the play doesn’t work quite so well when he’s the target. There are a few reasons for this that become clear when you watch it in action:

First of all, there’s a personnel issue here. Because the power forward is posting up, the centre is the one who has to throw the lob pass. In this case that means Joey Dorsey, who is well known for being inaccurate when asked to throw the ball from around the foul line area. His defender isn’t going to honour his shot and will instead clog the lane to the basket, and even if that doesn’t happen there’s no guarantee he will be able to make a pass with the necessary precision to work as a lob. To get this to work properly, you really want Motiejunas to be the nominal centre on the court. That means he’s on the receiving end of passes from Smith or Papanikolaou, which are likely to be more accurate.

Beyond that, Motiejunas himself is not best suited for this play. He actually fails to make the roll to the hoop at all here – instead of freeing himself and getting up momentum he remains tangled up with his defender for too long to be effective. This is both a strength and smarts issue – Howard is stronger and will get freer with less effort, but he also knows when is the right time to disentangle himself and head to the basket. Motiejunas will have to learn when the right time to release is. Of course, even if he does that, he’s still going to have trouble simply because he is not great at catching and finishing in mid-air. When D-Mo catches the ball near the basket he has to gather himself before going up again, and that makes it much easier for opposition players to recover and block the shot.

The inability to use this play well is why Motiejunas tends to struggle when his defender fronts him. But this is still a very useful part of the Rockets’ offence when Howard is on the floor. It will be interesting to see whether playing with better passing big men will make this play more viable for D-Mo going forward, because it is key to getting the most out of the Rockets’ twin post threats.

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