Playoff Strategy: Can Oklahoma City Defend Houston’s High Pick-And-Roll?

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This season James Harden has arguably been the best player in NBA history at attacking via the high pick-and-roll. On this play, where the offensive team will place three shooters on the perimeter, Harden will enact a pick-and-roll, which is followed by a drive to the lane (for more information, watch BBallBreakdown’s video below). Per Synergy, when Harden runs this play, the Rockets score 1.234 points per possession, which is the best in the NBA out of players who have run this action at least four-hundred times.

Consequently, any team that will face the Rockets in the playoffs will need to be able to defend this play. During the regular season, the best way teams slowed down Harden’s spread pick-and-roll was through defensive switching. This forces Harden to isolate and resulted in Houston scoring “only” 1.047 points per possession. This is nearly .2 points per possession less, which when considering a full game that is nearly ~100 possessions, ends up being significant. If the Rockets were to run the high spread pick-and-roll every play (they won’t), that .2 differential is twenty points per contest.
The reason why is that, when implementing a switch defense, opposing defenders can stay with their man. Against the Rockets, this prevents Harden from getting easy assists because Houston’s other shooters are covered.
Thus the Thunder went into the first game of the series with the plan to switch. It went poorly. Harden ran nine high spread pick-and-rolls in Game 1, scored fourteen points, and simply decimated Oklahoma City’s big men. When Steven Adams, Taj Gibson, Jerami Grant, and Enes Kanter dared Harden to drive, he scored on 100% of possessions.
He also was able to score threes on these same switches.
Seeing this, Oklahoma City completely changed their strategy in the second game, chose not to switch on these pick-and-rolls, and to let a big sit in the paint awaiting Harden. At points, this resulted in players like Ryan Anderson getting three-point shots that they missed.
Additionally, in other situations James Harden chose to drive to the basket, and he would turn the ball over or miss the layup.
This strategy provides two benefits for Oklahoma City. First, it lets Andre Roberson – the best perimeter defender in this series – to stay with Harden all game. This forces Harden to take contested shots or pass the ball to another teammate. Secondly, it lets Steven Adams excel at what he does best: protecting the rim. Consequently, the decision not to switch puts the Thunder players in the best possible position to defend.
The problem, though, lies in the numbers. Houston had a bad game on Wednesday night and will have to make adjustments to counter the Thunder’s new strategy. But, statistics show – as demonstrated above – that Harden is noticeably better when the defense does not switch. It opens up Houston’s shooters and lets the Rockets find more open three-point shots.
Thus Oklahoma City is in a world of bad options. They could stick with their defensive strategy from Game 2, however, there is a chance that this could backfire and allow Houston clinch the series. On the other hand, perhaps with more familiarity, the Thunder could revert to their Game 1 switching defense. Yet, Houston has now shown multiple times this season that they will score against Oklahoma City when the latter implements that game plan.
Admittedly, it seems that no defensive policy will be enough to prevent Houston and James Harden from scoring. Therefore, for the Thunder to win a game in this series, they will need to rely on the athleticism and defensive ability of Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Taj Gibson, Steven Adams, and Jerami Grant. Without superb performances from all of these players, though, odds are that Houston will finish this series off in Oklahoma.

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