Earlier this week, James Harden leaped forward, got bumped from behind, and lifted the whole Toyota Center to its feet in raptures. He hit this game winning jumper that put the Houston Rockets a single point ahead of the visiting San Antonio Spurs.
With 9.3 seconds on the clock, there was no doubt as to what kind of play the Rockets would run — a pick and roll with Harden as the ball handler. The Spurs probably knew it too, but still couldn’t prevent the bearded scoring machine from executing a play he has become all too familiar with.
Let’s take a look at how Harden created the look for himself.
Other than Harden and Omer Asik, the Rockets have three great 3-point shooters on the floor, who have the simple task of spacing the floor. Carlos Delfino (38 3P%), Chandler Parsons (37.8 3P%) and Patrick Beverley (40.3 3P%) are all lethal from beyond the arc and cannot be left open.
Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs’ best on-the-ball defender, is understandably the one guarding Harden on the inbound pass. He has a freakish 7′ 3″ wingspan, and is definitely the man for the job. As soon as Harden gets the ball, the Rockets players start moving:
Patrick Beverley makes the cut to the strong side corner, taking Tony Parker with him. Meanwhile, Asik uses his strength to push Tim Duncan towards the basket in order to create some separation, before he retreats to the 3-point line to receive the inbound. Delfino merely takes a few steps back towards the 3-point line on the weak side. Watch how the play develops.
Asik sets great screens, and on this play he did just that. As soon as Harden releases the pass to his teammate, he runs towards him. Asik completes the handoff, while Leonard pointlessly tries to fight over the top of the screen, but gets stuck. At the same time, Tim Duncan is dreading for what is to come, as in a couple of moments he will have an extremely quick guard in front of him.
Harden dribbles towards the basket, while Asik quickly sprints in the same direction, essentially creating a 2v1 scenario. At this point, Harden has already left Leonard behind him. With Asik rolling to the basket, Duncan is forced to front his man in order to avoid giving up an easy layup, in the case that Harden decides to pass the ball. Instead, Harden stops and pops for a mid-range jumper. Leonard bumps him from behind, but Harden still has a clear view at the basket and is poised enough to knock down the shot despite the contact.
The pick and roll has been kind to James Harden and the Houston Rockets. They run the play very often and do so with fruitful results. In fact, over a fourth of Harden’s offensive possessions include a pick and roll with him as the ball handler. When he controls the ball in pick and rolls, he scores a very solid 1,02 points per possession, which ranks him fifth in the NBA. Running this play, Harden shoots 46.9% from the field.
To put the figure in context, we can take a look at Harden’s numbers in isolation. He is one of the best players in the league when it comes to isolating and taking his man off the dribble. He also ranks among the elite isolation players in the league, but his numbers are not quite as efficient. Harden scores 0.96 points per possession on just 36% from the field in isolation plays.
So what makes Harden such a good pick and roll player you might ask? Allow me to take you through some film.
Something Harden absolutely loves doing in pick and rolls is stepping under the screen and pulling up for a three, as you can see in the montage below.
Harden consistently creates a quality look for himself in these situations. He doesn’t need a lot of space to get a shot off, and the play is very hard to defend. Asik’s screens are usually very solid, making it virtually impossible for the defending guard to recover in time to contest the shot.
This particular shot is what has really boosted Harden’s points per possession in pick and rolls. He is already a terrific 3-point shooter, connecting on 37.6% of his attempts from beyond the arc this season, but when he hoists up a three in the above shown scenarios, his 3-point field goal percentage rockets all the way up to 41.3%. It is clearly a shot Harden is extremely comfortable with taking.
These situations also put the defending big man in a predicament. If he doesn’t come up to contest Harden’s shot, he is giving up a very efficient look. At the same time, if he overextends, Harden will drive to the basket and create a look for himself at the rim, as shown in this montage.
As you can see, Harden loves to abuse slower defenders and race past them for an easy look close to the basket. His incredible ability to turn the corner and explode to the rim is truly unique. Once he makes it to the basket he is able to finish in traffic even when he is hacked. This is how he forces his opponents to foul him, and that’s how he has come to lead the league in free throw attempts at 10.3 per game.
The last play of the montage offers an interesting variation that we don’t see quite as often.
Here, Asik is trailing the play. As Luis Scola (a notoriously bad defender) is waiting to match up with his man, he instantly notices what the Rockets are up to — a high pick and roll. Correctly identifying Harden as the main threat in this play, Scola steps up and is ready to trap him. However, instead of setting a hard screen, Asik briefly stops and continues running towards the basket. This opens up the lane for Harden, who splits the double team:
Scola has effectively rendered himself useless, and put his team in a 4v5 situation. Houston has excellent shooters, which means that the remaining Suns players can’t leave their man unattended. A simple play like this has already jeopardized the defense, and the Rockets are practically guaranteed a high quality look.
Harden’s scoring abilities open up a lot of doors for the Rockets to exploit. His unpredictability and versatility as a ball handler and scorer can upset just about any defense. To guard him in the pick and roll, you have to have a quick and athletic big man, who can quickly cover the distance to contest the shot, but at the same time not allow Harden an open driving lane. It goes without saying that there are few individuals in the NBA who fit that description.