The Rockets lost on the road to the crummy Wizards Monday night, in overtime, by the score of 135–131. James Harden was tremendous, in his particular James Harden-ian way, but the team around him mostly sucks, and the Rockets once again have absolutely no reliable form of attack beyond clearing out and hoping Harden can make enough insanely tough buckets to carry the day.
Harden had 54 points in the game, and finished two rebounds shy of a conventional triple-double. But he also had 11 turnovers, and Houston’s offense went completely to shit late in the fourth quarter and overtime, allowing the sloppy and terminally harebrained Wizards to eventually pull away behind a rare sequence of consecutive defensive stops. Eight of Harden’s 13 assists came in the first quarter, when the Wizards were being lazy as shit defensively, but also when they were defending Harden on screens by vaguely pushing up to hedge and then sort of hoping to corral Harden in the space between the screener’s defender and his own recovering defender. It was stupid even before it was half-assed, and Harden made a hearty meal out of it, reading the help and throwing pinpoint swing and lob passes for easy assists.
The Wizards adjusted predictably, starting in the second quarter, by more readily switching on screens, and Harden responded by bumping up his shot output and pouring in 33 points over the game’s middle quarters. Watch him roast Markieff Morris at about the 3:05 mark of the above video; watch him race into a screen and get downhill for another bucket at 3:27; watch the Rockets engineer switches to single out Tomas Satoransky at 3:36, for a clutch bucket. The Wizards tried running some of the Spurs defense—dropping the big and surrendering the midrange—in the third quarter, but Harden was already cooking, and anyway the Rockets were still able to isolate Harden against Satoransky and Jeff Green for two more of those signature step-backs toward the end of the third.
But as the game went along and all the Rockets could come up with was one more Harden dribble sequence or high screen after another, even the disorganized, demoralized Wizards eventually were bound to come up with the right approach. It wound up being pretty simple, in fact—the Rockets would send a big to set a screen, and the big’s defender would come up to hedge, but aggressively and right on the screener’s hip. This had the effect of preventing Harden from getting around the screen cleanly, and allowed Harden’s defender to ooze tightly around the screen and recover before Harden could penetrate the defense. It’s basically the trap, but there’s absolutely no magic there, whatsoever. That’s a defense that the Warriors, for example, absolutely murder, by hitting the screener on the short-roll—a dump-off pass where the big catches the ball above the free-throw line but behind the two defenders involved in the action—and allowing him to make the next play, with a man advantage against a scrambling defense. It’s not an exaggeration to say that exact counter to that exact defense is what unlocked Draymond Green’s offensive excellence for Golden State.
But the Rockets are missing two things. They don’t have a Green-like screener who is all that reliable at making the next play, be it a couple hard dribbles and a finish at the rim or a quick pass to an open shooter on the perimeter. But more importantly, what they’re missing is any real offensive plan beyond getting James Harden a favorable matchup on the perimeter for another isolation bucket. Once the Wizards started making the screen a pointless exercise, it fell to Harden to generate his offense exclusively against reasonably capable defenders. Monday night that wound up being a losing proposition. Probably this had to do with Harden playing 47 minutes of grueling basketball, doing all the heavy lifting for an offense that, outside of Harden’s brilliance and a heroic night from Eric Gordon, just had nothing at all going for it. But that’s also a foreseeable consequence of whittling your offense all the way down to Please Do Something Amazing Again James Harden, and probably explains some of why the Rockets have slipped from first to ninth in offensive rating from last season to this season. It’s not like the league was never gonna catch up!
So the Rockets found themselves down five points with two minutes left in overtime, with the ball in Harden’s hands and the shot clock dwindling, and Bradley Beal doing the defending. Beal was dramatically overplaying Harden’s left hand, probably on the theory that if Harden can’t create any misdirection he won’t be able to comfortably step back to his right for a clean jumper. It’s a gamble, and Harden beats that all the time, but here he’d already tried to pass the ball off once in the possession, and clearly didn’t think he could get to his left hand to either throw Beal off balance or drive to the cup. Lacking a better idea, Harden did this:
Two possessions later, after Harden hit a clutch three against a disorganized Wizards defense, Wall overplayed Harden’s left hand on the wing, goaded him into a drive to his right, and slid in front of him to draw an offensive foul. And that was the ballgame. A combination of a dearth of secondary playmakers, an exhausted offensive engine, and an offense that does nothing even half as well as it stays the hell out of James Harden’s way, left the Rockets without a counterpunch to a pretty simple defensive adjustment. Overplay Harden’s left hand, and obstruct his path around screens. As a Wizards fan, I found this delightful. As a basketball fan, it was jarring to realize just how much these Rockets need Harden to cash in on a lot of ridiculously difficult looks, and against an escalating degree of difficulty, as opposing teams get at least 48 minutes and close to 100 possessions to refine their defensive approach.
The Rockets are back below .500 on the year, and have now lost three straight to relatively unimpressive Eastern Conference teams. Chris Paul and James Harden have missed a combined seven of Houston’s 19 games, and this is of course all a lot easier when they’re on the floor together. But it won’t ever be any prettier. It’s a testament to their towering individual brilliance that Houston’s one-trick offense works as often as it does, but a drawback of running late-clock, one-possession, isolation offense literally one hundred percent of the time is by the time you get to a late-clock, one-possession situation, the other team has had plenty of time to figure out how to defend it.