How the Rockets attacked the Lakers' ICE defense
This morning I got up and watched last night’s Rockets v Lakers game. I’ve been on a mini-holiday and my train journey back included a 5-hour delay, so I didn’t really have the energy to stay up for what was almost certainly going to be another loss. As I watched it back, it only took a few minutes to realise the direction the game was headed, so I took to Twitter to find one person in particular and their reaction, which I was anxious to see.
Tim is a Lakers content creator, but also runs Basketball Index, and is a great follow to learn about Xs and Os and view his own interesting data packages. Around this time last season, when Houston lost a back to back homestand against the Lakers in particularly tragic fashion, he was highly critical of the coaching staff and their lack of adjustments – although most Houston fans only remember them collectively as one giant ‘I quit’ game from James Harden. What we as a fanbase are trying to figure out, almost ever since then, is whether such criticisms are a true reflection of Coach Silas. It's the process of disentangling the head coach from the performance of an incredibly young team, and finding out which one is steering the other.
So how did the Rockets go about attacking the Lakers ball screen defense last night? Well, the answer lies in going back and reviewing every single one. I wanted to focus on how they went at the Lakers’ ICE side pick and roll coverage. ICE is where the on-ball defender attempts to block the guard’s path around the screen, forcing them away from it. This is an incredibly effective defense for LA, because it funnels the ballhandler into the big man, who will often be Anthony Davis. When he’s not the drop defender, he’s still lurking weakside to rotate and deter with his incredible shot blocking and altering skills.
Ironically, the first ICE screen of the game ends in a bucket, but as you watch, you can see the effectiveness behind the idea. Kevin Porter Jr can’t go around the screen so ends up isolating on Davis. The smaller guard is switched onto Daniel Theis but he’s not a player who can attack that mismatch from the perimeter. Fortunately for Houston, Porter Jr cooks Davis and gets all the way to the rim for the layup. He’s a good isolation scorer. But this isn’t necessarily a matchup you want to rely on exploiting again.
Now watch a similar play in the 4th quarter. It’s a KPJ/Theis side pick n roll again, with Davis as the screen defender. This time, when the Lakers are forced into switching, Theis goes to the dunker spot instead of the 3-point line. You’re not asking him to post up or do anything in this play against the smaller guard, but he’s there for the dump off option when Porter drives, and if Porter took a shot he’d be in position for an offensive rebound. This was a nice positional adjustment to make him more effective.
Next up we have KPJ again dribbling down the wing, this time with Theis trailing. This provided a great angle for the screen, facing almost towards the baseline, which completely takes Bazemore out, and allows Porter a way around. They’ve achieved what they want to achieve in this play, but what comes next is down to the skills and decision making of the guard.
We’ll play the rest of the clip in its entirety here, and we come to the common problem of Porter Jr missing a pass opportunity and picking up his dribble. A broken play ends in a turnover and fast break for the Lakers. Rounding the corner and attacking the drop center invites weakside help, at that moment there are shooters on the wing. KPJ doesn’t look at them. Wood himself makes a poor decision to cut into the paint at the same time, moving away from his wide-open shooting position, but Porter doesn’t see him anyway even if he was there.
A great way to combat ICE coverage is what Christian Wood does on this play, and what Houston started to do late in the 1st half. Instead of actually setting the screen, he starts to come over, stops, and holds his position. Both defenders go with Jalen Green and he makes a great pass back to Wood for the open 3, which he misses.
The Rockets tried this twice more, but neither were perfect. In the first play below, DJ Augustin is perhaps a little slow and has to make a bounce pass, which gives Avery Bradley time to do a good job of scampering back. But unlike Theis, Wood has the ability to put the ball on the floor and forces a late rotation and foul from Anthony Davis. In the second clip, it’s a poorly placed past to Sengun as the ‘screener’ (who doesn’t actually screen), but he makes a good play to find Eric Gordon open.
And then we have this play. Sengun pops to the 3-point line, and neither defender goes with him. Green makes the pass, but Sengun isn’t a good or confident enough shooter to punish the defence who both go towards Green. DeAndre Jordan wants to stay as the drop man, meaning one defender is having two defend two players on the closeout. This should be a simple pass, to a man 4-5 feet away. Unfortunately, Sengun throws it away.
Is this a bad action? Is this Coach Silas’s fault? Should they change the way they attacked ICE coverage? I don’t think so. They got a fairly open 3 for Sengun, who might not be much of a shooter yet, but needs reps, and can also drive if he elects against firing away. They also had an open shot option for Jalen Green stood next to him, and any play which generates that is a keeper. They just couldn’t execute. Which is something we see again and again from this young team.
We can see this offense causing the Lakers problems. In this play, DeAndre Jordan doesn’t want to leave Sengun open on the perimeter again. But the entire point of the ICE coverage is to funnel the guard into the big, who needs to be in a position to contain the drive. Jordan abandons this because of the success Houston was getting with their screener staying on the perimeter. He runs right up to Sengun when he sees the screen coming, allowing Gordon the open drive to the rim. That forces weakside rotation, he makes the kickout, and Jalen Green gets a decent look which doesn’t drop.
Bad offense because they didn’t score? No. Jalen Green is just struggling from deep as he adjusts to the NBA, and is 4-32 outside of an insanely hot shooting night against Boston.
Finally, we come to my favourite play of the game. This time Anthony Davis is the screen defender, a much, much smarter defender than Jordan. When Jalen Green goes into the pick n roll, AD tries to hold a position where he can either move into position to stop the drive, or closeout to Sengun. Jalen sees him cheating. He backs out of the initial drive attempt, and then with great poise and patience motions towards Sengun, before hitting a cross over which catches Davis napping and gets him to the rim, where he’s met by Carmelo Anthony.
This is just smart basketball that isn’t rewarded. Green will eventually get a friendlier whistle. He’ll eventually put on muscle and find crafty ways to finish through contact. For now, just getting to the rim is important.
The Rockets also ran some pick n roll with Carmelo Anthony as the screen defender, but before we get to these we have to look at how Melo was defending ball screens where the defender wasn’t trying to ICE. As we can see, he is coming up to the point of the screen, coming up so high that he actually gets forced into switching on the first play.
To exploit this in ICE, the Rockets put him in a side pick n roll action. Melo comes up to stay with Sengun, and Gordon has an easy drive, although can’t hit the lefty layup with Anthony Davis looking for the block from the weakside.
In the sequence below, Melo again comes up to the screen, which KPJ should take as his cue to drive right, into the open space. However, he’s too caught up looking the other way. This is an issue I’ve noticed a lot so far this season, where Porter Jr is slow to react to an opportunity that presents itself because he’s too occupied trying to run the play they called. If he’s ever going to be someone who starts plays and handles the ball this much on a good team, he needs to be able to react on the fly and go freelance when such a clear defensive breakdown happens, even if it means abandoning the play. By the way - great work from KJ Martin to rescreen on the defender on the opposite side, another key to busting the ICE defense. More Porter Jr and KJ pick n rolls please.
What’s worse when you watch this back is that there is little weakside help. Anthony Davis isn’t in the game. DeAndre Jordan is following Sengun up to the perimeter (the main theme of this blog is probably that DeAndre Jordan is a really bad defender). Russ is the only person not on the perimeter, and even he doesn’t have his attention on what is happening, something David Nwaba tries to take advantage of. Watch again how Nwaba moves to the basket in a fruitless endeavour, before Porter finally realises he needs to go back to his right.
When Jordan was in, Houston kept putting him in pick and roll. This play below is really simple. The Lakers try to ICE, Jordan is a little late sliding over to contain the drive (and likely early shouting the call) and Wood has an open lane for the roll and dunk.
There are, of course, ways to avoid ICE completely. You can use a team’s defensive predictability against them, or you can change up the way you get into your action to stop them from ever doing it. In this setup they start out of a 21 series, before swinging the ball around to the other side of the court. KPJ follows with a cut. KJ Martin sets a pindown and Porter gets the ball on the wing. From there, Martin sets the ballscreen and because of the angle he sets it, combined with the quick reversal of direction from KPJ, Kent Bazemore is completely taken out. There is no way to ICE this screen, and KJ gets the roll to the basket for the dunk, which is unfortunately waved off for some pretty soft contact.
This is the sort of play design I like and something Coach Silas needs to implement more into his offense. Not necessarily this play specifically, but he needs to think of ways to have an action before the ‘main’ action. He likes a bit more movement than Mike D’Antoni did, who offered little disguise when going into a James Harden/Chris Paul pick n roll, but at times it feels pointless. Movement for the sake of movement. This play achieves a very specific aim, in getting Bazemore lost and not knowing where the screen is coming from. The empty corner side pick n roll is an action Houston likes to use a lot. They should more inventive in how they get into it.
So, what did we learn from this exercise? Well, it answered Tim's question first and foremost, that Houston actually did a pretty good job attacking L.A's ICE coverage, although the points per possession stats would probably look ugly. By looking at each play and the different pick n roll player combination and matchups, hopefully it was evident that the Rockets did some pretty interesting stuff to try to exploit it. Nothing was by any means ground-breaking or especially innovative, but it generated open looks for guys like Christian Wood and Jalen Green. It generated driving lanes for Eric Gordon and Kevin Porter Jr. I will be posting more about Houston's offense, which has been abjectly terrible so far this season. There is plenty to be alarmed about, and I still think we simply don't know whether Stephen Silas can be an effective, winning head coach in the NBA. But I wanted to dispel the idea that this is just 5 players stood around, doing what they want. Their approach to side pick n rolls is just one small part of one game that I've highlighted, but they showed adjustments and they exploited weaknesses. If they had the talent on the court to do so, they would have reaped the rewards.