The Houston Rockets are trying to figure out what went wrong in their 119-106 loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, and at least two of them think they’ve solved it.
The answer, according to Clint Capela and Eric Gordon: too many James Harden and Chris Paul isos.
“We’re just out here waiting on them to make the decisions,” Capela told USA Today. “This is what they do. This is what they’ve been doing all season long, so it’s something that is harder to do right now.”
“Offensively with everybody, we really don’t get real good looks. … We can’t isolate as much against a good defensive team,” added Gordon, according to the Undefeated. “I don’t care who you are. We have some of the best isolation players out there. But against a team like that, it’s going to be too tough.”
And the Warriors are a great defensive team — the NBA’s best in the playoffs by a wide margin. So, if this is who the Rockets are, and it’s not working, they’re in for a rude awakening, unless they adjust.
Isolation is how Houston got here
The Rockets got 64 points on 41 shots from their all-world backcourt and 42 points on 44 shots from everybody else. They’re at their best when Harden and Paul are carving through the lane, collapsing the defense and kicking to a bevy of 3-point shooters. They were far from their best in Game 1.
All year long, Houston has held the ball longer than anybody, taking 18 shots per game when someone is holding the ball for six seconds or longer, according to Second Spectrum data. Those attempts have risen to 25 a night in the playoffs, and you can bet the vast majority of them belong to Harden and Paul. For good reason. They were the league’s two best isolation players all season. Harden led the league in isos, with almost 200 more than the next-closest player (LeBron James), and Paul was fifth. The result was the league’s second-most efficient offense this year — just a tick behind Golden State.
Why isn’t iso-ball working now?
So, what’s different? Playoff teams feature better defenders, and the Warriors have some of the best. They’re long, athletic and switchable, unafraid to crowd opponents, because they know everyone else will rotate into place if one of them gets beat. Hold the ball longer, get deep into the clock, and they’re even more dangerous, because they’re smart enough to know you’re running out of options.
The Rockets took 24 of their 85 shots (28 percent) in the final seven seconds of the shot clock, including 17 in the last four seconds, of which they made just six. And that doesn’t include their three shot-clock violations. That might be an effective strategy were Golden State working the whole time.
The Rockets passed the ball less frequently than any team in the league during the regular season, averaging 253.8 passes per game — almost 100 less than the pass-happy Warriors — mostly because Harden or Paul only needed one kick-out pass to an open shooter or a lob to the roll man when they weren’t creating for themselves. They’re averaging 26.4 fewer passes per game in the playoffs, which means even less stress on the Warriors, who aren’t getting put into rotation when the ball zips around.
Mike D’Antoni lost his pace-and-space mojo
This is all the antithesis of the “Seven Seconds or Less” philosophy that made Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni a household name with the Phoenix Suns last decade. Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck did a nice job detailing how, as D’Antoni conceded, “it became about 16 or less” in Houston, mostly because you play the hand you’ve been dealt, and he’s got pocket aces when it comes to isolation players.
This is who the Rockets are, and it didn’t work in Game 1. The question now is whether they rely on what’s gotten them here — a middle-of-the pack pace that’s slowed even further in the playoffs, with the hope that Harden and Paul can break down a locked-in Warriors defense with the same patience that lit the league on fire this year — or they play the brand of basketball that made D’Antoni famous.
This is something Gordon foresaw against Golden State before Game 1, via Beck:
“It’s good that we got enough talent that we can get away with [iso-ball],” Rockets guard Eric Gordon says. But against the small-ball Warriors, “We’re gonna have to get back to playing superfast.”
When the Rockets did run, they were more efficient than any team in the league this season, averaging 1.20 points per possession, thanks to Harden’s finishing skills, an array of shooters unafraid to launch on the break and an uber-athletic center. Only, then you’re playing into the Warriors’ strength. They love playing with pace, and they scored more fast-break points than anybody all year. Klay Thompson attempted 15 3-pointers in Game 1 as it were. Do you really want to afford him more possessions?
Running with the Warriors is a dangerous proposition
The Warriors ran anyway in Game 1, even as the Rockets slowed the game to a crawl, because Houston missed 46 shots — more than half of which were 3’s. Long rebounds are a death sentence against Golden State, whose Hamptons Five lineup features a handful of creators capable of pushing the pace.
If your plan is to get into a track meet with the Warriors, who have the best transition offense (1.26 points per possessions) and defense (0.87 points allowed per 100) in the playoffs, then good luck. The Rockets are average defensively in transition, and that’s not going to cut it against a team that has outscored opponents on the break by 87 points in the playoffs, including an 18-3 margin on Monday.
The Rockets also have to be wary of running Paul and Harden into the ground, given that the former is 33 years old and the latter has had conditioning issues throughout his much-maligned playoff career.
So, how do the Rockets take off?
The simplest solution is for Houston to make more shots in the half-court. Let your defense get set, limit Golden State’s transition opportunities, and for god’s sake don’t leave Thompson open. Ever.
Obviously, this is easier said than done, but the Rockets are as equipped as anyone. Harden and Paul can penetrate like few others. Just do it earlier in the clock. If the Warriors are taking away the step-back 3’s that have made them so deadly in isolation, the Rockets need to give themselves enough time to take their defenders off the dribble and find guys on the wings. Not only that, but those shooters have to swing a second or third pass in order to get ahead of the Warriors’ crisp rotations. Oh, and don’t be afraid to feed Capela. The lobs were there whenever Houston penetrated in Game 1.
You don’t have to get a shot off in seven seconds or less, but you can’t hold the ball for that long.
Isolation only gets you so far when you’re facing a team that’s equally efficient moving the ball, if not better, and elite defensively. It takes some effort to beat these Warriors, and the Rockets haven’t had to do much heavy lifting this year. At least make Golden State work for it. Check your guts, Houston.
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