Game 3 Film Study: How James Harden and the Rockets can solve their Dort problem
The Rockets dropped game 3 in overtime on Saturday night, as the Thunder wrestled back some hope in the series. Their 3-headed monster of guards finally showed up, and Billy Donovan went into survival mode. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played 48 minutes, Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder played 41 and 39 respectively. They combined for 78 points, compared to just 35 in game one and 58 in game two. Rotations have shortened - the Rockets shouldn’t expect to see any more game time for the likes of Nader, Diallo and Ferguson. After the game, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said “I think we’re starting to figure out how to play against their defense. I think we’ve figured it out and are excited about going forward.”
There are a couple of things to note before we get ahead of ourselves here. Firstly, OKC had a 104.4 offensive rating in game 3, that’s actually down from 106.7 over the first two games. OKC won this game by capitalising on same truly awful execution by Houston down the stretch, exploiting Harden’s 5 fouls and exploding in OT when Harden was finally fouled out. Austin Rivers was anonymous, Covington in foul trouble, and Houston shot 15-50 from deep. OKC didn’t win this one by ‘figuring out’ Houston’s defense. They did it with their own.
Through 3 games against Houston this season, Lu Dort has proven to be the best Harden defender I’ve ever seen, by far. He’s all over him on the perimeter without fouling, he cuts off his drives, recovers off screens and uses his combination of strength and quickness to hang with Harden on every possession. The Rockets have a lot of work to do to keep Dort away from Harden as much as possible. One great defender does not make a defense in the same way one great playmaker makes an offense. So, let’s look at how Harden can get some separation from Dort.
The first screen Houston ran for Harden was with Robert Covington, his frequent pick n pop partner since joining in February. Covington sets a great angle screen here and there’s just no way Dort can get around that. Harden gets the switch he wants and attacks Shai for the layup.
This screen below is set earlier, which gives Dort more time to fight through it. Compare it to the first one, where Harden is already going around the screen at the point of contact. This time Covington screens before Harden is ready to move. The Rockets get nothing off this as Harden passes to Eric Gordon who misses the 3.
However, look at how Adams is dropping in anticipation of the Harden drive just from that moment of delay with Dort fighting through the screen. That left Covington open for the pick n pop, which Harden didn’t go for.
We have really bad decision making from Harden here, this time as House sets the screen. Dort fights through and tries to recover to Harden, leaving House wide open for the 3. Instead Harden takes the contested shot over Dort which misses.
Even with perfect screen setting, there’s nothing Houston can do to stop Dort from eventually recovering back to Harden. But Harden has to punish this by hitting House for the 3. That’s the point of these screens, to punish that recover time by utilising the pick n pop option. What makes this worse is who Houston also has on the weakside - Ben McLemore and Jeff Green. Even if Chris Paul closes out House on the pass, it’s a simple extra pass to get a wide-open shot from one of these two.
Here’s some more pick n pops rejected by Harden. Some were real missed opportunities, others Harden got something out of the possession later down the line, it's just something I think Harden needs to utilise more.
Robert Covington is Harden’s most trusted partner out of the pick n pop, and when he was in the game he was setting great screens that either led to an open 3, or got Harden the favourable switch. The big problem Houston had running this play of course, was Covington simply wasn’t in the game enough due to foul trouble.
This is a perfect example of how things went wrong for Houston. Harden tries to break down Dort who doesn’t bite on the shot, so he has to quickly throw the pass to House. Now House tries to isolate on SGA, with no success, so gets the ball back to James. Now it’s time for the screen to get Dort off of Harden, but it’s poorly executed, and Dort is able to easily go under and stay with Harden. Props to House for going at SGA a second time and getting the side-step 3 to go.
The Rockets needs to set that screen tighter, bringing everyone closer together and forcing the switch. There’s just so much lateral space for Dort to go under House, who sets a fairly weak screen anyway.
The Rockets were at least super aggressive in rescreening. Here House sets another weak screen, but goes for a rescreen which this time gets Harden onto Bazley. He throws up a brick, again probably looking for the foul, but you’re happy with the process if not the result.
Bazley gets switched onto Harden again here after Tucker screens. Harden gets the separation but pump-fakes, trying to get the foul on the closeout. Harden has to attack when he gets the switch he wants. Dort’s individual defense is keeping him out of the paint, and running pick n pops doesn’t help that either. When Harden gets a mismatch, he has to look to drive and collapse the defense, finding those open corner 3s and drawing fouls. In game one, with Dort out, Houston corner 3-point frequency was a massive 25.8%. By game three, it had dropped to 8.7%. Harden isn't able to drive and get those kick out opportunities with Dort on him.
House again has to rescreen here, and while Dort does an incredible job with his effort by trying to get his hand up to contest through the screen, that’s still a pretty clean look for James Harden.
This is a similar play with Dort getting caught on a Tucker screen. This is another easy look, it just doesn’t go down.
Dort locked up Harden 1v1, and I don’t think he could have done any better navigating his way around screens. But, you can see Houston did have success with them, it’s just impossible for anyone to consistently avoid contact from big bodies like PJ Tucker and Covington. Houston will look back at the game tape and know they had open shots, not just from role players but from Harden, that should have gone down.
Dort did have more success crashing through screens. The effort here is incredible and it’s an outstanding job to recover and cut off Harden in the middle. However, Harden has at least gotten a head start and some separation from the screen, and OKC help off both corners, giving up an open Tucker 3. I think it’s likely Billy Donovan will instruct the other defenders to stick to the shooters if Dort continues to be this strong denying Harden’s drives.
Houston also tried some dribble handoffs early in the game to try to get some separation. Again, these look promising watching back the tape, but with poor execution the results looks like they were completely fruitless. They didn't really go to this throughout the rest of the game, it will be interesting to see whether they come back in game 4 with more of it.
The first play comes off a SLOB and Tucker performs a little DHO with Harden that immediately turns into a crunching screen on Dort. The tightness of this means Harden got some separation, but he tries to bait for the 3-point shooting foul which he doesn’t get. The second play comes out of the Rockets’ 21 series set. A side Harden DHO with Gordon curling around for the tough shot turning his body. With better decision making, Gordon can make that pass back to Harden and if Dort closes out, Tucker is already cutting to the corner for the open shot.
Houston can also keep Dort off Harden through cross matching. The Rockets want to keep Harden on Dort on the defensive end, as OKC’s weakest player on offense by far. Dort is 2 of 14 from 3 this series. Almost all have been wide open and he has more airballs than makes. By putting Harden on him, the Rockets are allowing him to take possessions off and conserve his energy, and also hiding him defensively. While Harden has been very good on that end throughout in Orlando, he’s still their weakest defender containing dribble drives, whereas Eric Gordon, Danuel House and Austin Rivers have excelled in this area.
When Harden is on Dort that’s an easy pickup for him in transition. When Harden is guarding somebody else, it's trickier for Dort to get on to him.
Even when Harden is guarding Dort, when Houston gets a stop and is able to push the pace in transition, with guys getting up the court and filling the corners quickly, sometimes Dort has to leave Harden to pick up a shooter.
Even after a made basket, just by pushing the pace Houston is able to get a similar result here. Dort is looking to pick up Harden, but with the quick kick-ahead pass to Gordon, Dort has to move over to pick him up. OKC only has Schröder on that side of the court, who is guarding Tucker as he fills the corner. Houston moves the ball around to eventually find Harden and this move is just poetry.
Houston tried having other players bring the ball up, mostly with Jeff Green. The Harden/Green inverted pick n roll has been something Houston has been running more and more in Orlando. It's not new to this matchup, but it looks like a natural counter to Dort’s defense. You can see the attention Harden draws on this play as he acts as the screener for Green. Green even draws Shai Gilgeous-Alexander over to help in case he drives. This was a poor read as Danuel House was open next to him. Green is always looking for Harden, even though Dort was already recovering. Green needs to be more aware of the other shooters spaced around this action.
For the most part though, this two-man game excelled. The first clip in this compilation sees Dort do a good job of recovering after the screen, but it still gives Harden the opportunity to get downhill attacking the closeout. It led to a McLemore open look which should have gone up, instead he tried to drive and got a travel call. But every other action saw Green get great looks at the rim, where he is shooting 80% as a Houston Rocket, or had Harden matched off of Dort.
Then there was the traditional 1-5 pick n roll with Green as the screener. This is Houston’s only roll man option with Capela out, and I’d like to see them utilise it more to get Harden downhill in game 4. It’s no coincidence that Jeff Green was a +5 in a game Houston ended up losing by 12.
Every single 1-5 pick n roll with Green produced something here, whether it was the switch Harden wanted, a precious lane to attack to the basket, or a pick n pop option. Houston needs to spam this play in game 4 to get Harden some space to drive.
Lastly, we saw Harden put in some rare post up work, finding open shots for others, on top of drawing fouls and getting his own.
He was especially aggressive in the 3rd quarter. This was his second post up in a row, the first drawing a 3 second defensive violation. Off the SLOB Harden went back to it straight away, this time finding House for the wide open 3.
All in all, there are several adjustments Houston can make to ease some of the defensive pressure Dort is putting on Harden.
1. Spam the Harden/Green 1-5 pick n roll to get Harden downhill, setting screens higher beyond the arc if needed
2. More pick n pop with Covington, Harden needs to hit the shooter if Dort is leaving him open to chase off the screen
3. More postups to try to draw fouls on Dort and hit open shooters
4. Have Harden guard somebody else in order to crossmatch in transition
Of course, another adjustment not mentioned is Harden just draining stepback 3’s in Dort’s face. Harden is the best offensive talent in the game, so this is always a possibility. However, Dort has proven the best defender on him I’ve ever seen. It’s no coincidence that in their 3 matchups this season, Harden is shooting a putrid 31.1% from the field and 14.6% from 3. The shooting splits are ugly, and the tracking matchup data between the two is even uglier. Even with Westbrook out, presuming he is not back for game 4, there is a lot more Harden and Houston can do before we cross our fingers and hope those fortunes can change on their own. We saw glimpses of it in game 3, now it's about reviewing the tape, and adjusting to what worked and what didn't ahead of Monday's pivotal game 4.