The Houston Rockets led by one point, 50-49, at the end of the first half last night in Minnesota. So it’s not like they were in a crisis situation. But if a lead can be said to be an ugly and bad one, this qualified.
James Harden hit just four of his 14 shot attempts in the half and looked genuinely discombobulated for nearly all of it. The Timberwolves had ditched the standard switching defense when Harden or Chris Paul ran a high screen-and-roll with Clint Capela as the screener, opting instead to have the ballhandler’s defender chase him over the screen and Capela’s defender—usually Karl-Anthony Towns—hang back in the paint. This (mostly, though not always) deprived Harden of the opportunity to isolate against and cook a hapless big man at the top of the key; it also forced him or Paul to operate in the midrange part of the floor, where they’re less dangerous, with a defender coming up behind and another walling off the rim.
The Rockets, who of course are extremely good but whose algorithmic devotion to a few analytical precepts can skew gross and robotic even under ideal circumstances, responded—in the first half, anyway—with an unsightly lack of imagination and overabundance of machine logic. They’d just run another isolation or high screen for Harden or Paul, and another, and another, each one the same, seemingly bound to the expectation that over a long enough timeframe, grim math if nothing else would bear out the soundness of standing around while Harden or Paul dribble their way into lots and lots of three-point attempts. (To friends, I was saying things like, “The Rockets are bullshit” and “This is like basketball as played by a shark” and “I hate this.”)
They did, however, get around to making some actual basketball adjustments, after halftime. Nothing super sophisticated or imaginative, just little things, to punish Minnesota for leaving Harden’s or Paul’s defender out there alone against the screen-and-roll. Like so:
In this instance, for example, P.J. Tucker and Capela set a pair of ball screens at the same time, making it basically impossible for Jeff Teague to chase Paul over the top. Teague defends it like crap, crashing into Tucker and then trying to duck under him—but, with Towns and Taj Gibson hanging back and Capela waiting to divert him even if he fought over the Tucker pick, Teague would have to have made a superheroic play to prevent an open three. He’s no superhero!
Here’s another one:
On this one, Paul and Capela just simply and rapidly flip and repeat the ball screen. It springs Paul for an open three on the second attempt because, again, Teague tries—insanely, against a three-bombing team like the Rockets—to duck under Capela, but you can easily imagine Paul and Capela running him back and forth across this screen four or five times if that’s what it took to spring Paul for a shot. With Towns so far from the action, there’s nothing to stop them.
The Rockets did other stuff, too. They got the ball to Harden on the move, for example, instead of having him walk the ball to the top of the key to start a screen-and-roll or one of those endless dribble-dribble-dribble isolation sequences. Harden seemed to figure out that the Timberwolves were determined to fight over screens instead of surrendering mismatches, so he darted away from one screen, caught Jimmy Butler leaning toward it in anticipation of having to fight over the top, and got a wide-open three-pointer. They ran sets that had their big—Capela and then Nenê when Capela went to the bench—acting as passer and screener simultaneously, as Harden or Paul curled toward him from the baseline to catch the pass at full-speed and make a quick one-dribble move to wherever the open three-pointer could be found. In general, Harden and Paul made their moves earlier and more decisively, instead of dribbling and dribbling and letting the defense get ready for them. And a couple times, when Harden isolated, he did it from the wing instead of the top of the key, and it seemed to flummox the Timberwolves—which is brightly ironic, given that Minnesota’s coach, Tom Thibodeau, built his reputation on a defensive system that punished teams for running their offense on one side of the floor.
But the main thing is, once these little adjustments led to a couple of shots falling, man, they just kept falling and falling and falling.
That’s a 50-point quarter, the second-most points a team has scored in a quarter in NBA playoff history. It blew the game wide open, and transformed a raucous Minnesota home crowd that had been fantastic throughout the first half into mourners at a wake. The whole fourth quarter was garbage time.
The series isn’t over: The Rockets are up 3-1 and need to win one of the next three to advance. But, it’s over. Wayyyy over. Long before the third quarter ended last night, the series did. Because the Rockets made the kinds of minor course corrections they sometimes seem too robotic and post-human to bother with, and because for a team that can score like these Rockets can score, that’s all it takes to turn a close game into a complete joke.