How the Rockets attacked the Lakers' show defense
Following on from my recent wildly popular blog post ‘here’s how the Rockets attacked the Lakers’ pick and roll defense’, I thought I needed an even bigger and better sequel. So, here’s how the Rockets attacked the Lakers’ pick and roll defense – but this time it’s different!
In their second meeting in the two-game series, the Lakers threw out the ‘show and recover’ defense on screens - where the on-ball guard and screen defender both jump out momentarily to the ballhandler, before one scampers back to the open man who set the screen. They did this a couple of times in game one, but not often. It seemed to throw off the Houston offense when they did it.
We saw this defense a lot more in game two, from the very first play in fact. The video below shows a gorgeous play design, with a lot of stuff going on. There’s a screen the screener action, with Jae'Sean Tate coming off stagger screens before setting his own ballscreen. While this is happening, Jalen Green moves from the strong side corner to the weakside, emptying out that entire side of the court. His movement means that when two players go to Kevin Porter Jr, there’s nobody behind them to stop Tate rolling for an open dunk.
This is the exact way the Lakers guarded double screens in the first game. Stephen Silas recognised this too. Watch a play here from the first game, and you can see Reaves and Monk are trying to show on that first screen. It ends up in a switch, but Reaves runs right into DJ Augustin and gets forced into a switch.
Now go back and watch the first play of game two again. They intentionally clear out the strong side, knowing the Lakers are going to try to switch that first screen, so Tate knows to slip. They get lucky that both players go to the ball, but there’s a good chance this ends in a bucket or and1 even if they didn’t.
Houston has Kevin Porter Jr and Christian Wood in the next action. The slip pocket pass is probably Porter’s best strength as a passer, it’s the pass I’m most comfortable seeing him make. He nails it this time, and while Wood can get tunnel vision, he makes the right read here. Sengun creeps in from the corner, bringing Bradley in with him. This leaves Russell Westbrook, hardly known for his attentive off-ball defense, guarding two players. The Rockets generate an open 3.
There were times when the Lakers had success blowing up a play with the tactic, especially when the ballhandler was moving horizontally and they could push him into the sideline, or in a 21 series where there’s little space on the court.
They also clearly threw off KPJ here, who was probably expecting an ICE – which is how the Lakers were defending side pick n rolls in game one. He stays on his pivot foot and has his back to Sengun who slips, so he’s unable to hit him.
Jalen Green had a turn playmaking, and makes the right read with the bounce pass to Christian Wood, it’s just not executed perfectly and they cough up a turnover.
From then on, the Rockets feasted, and it helped build their 11-point lead. In their last play of the half, again there’s some court manipulation with Green cutting from weak to strong. KPJ gets whacked by Russ but is eventually able to make the pass to KJ Martin slipping. I like having Christian Wood stationed in the corner, because it drags Anthony Davis away from the rim. Green’s movement means LeBron is now isolated on the weakside on Tate and is too far away for him to help, which means AD has to leave Wood to get to Martin. Another open 3, this time for Houston’s best outside shooter.
Next up is another play where the Rockets have a similar alignment, with three above the break and two players in the corner. It means LeBron has too far to travel to intercept this bullet pass from Jalen Green and Sengun shows the nice hands to catch, spin, and dunk.
Now we come to my favourite play of the game. This time Tate is the screener, who isn’t a natural option for a pass over the top due to his smaller height. However, he moves to the corner, dragging Avery Bradley with him. This means when Sengun sets a second ballscreen for Jalen Green and the Lakers show, he is slipping down the lane with the smallest player on the court in the weakside help position. LeBron is on the wing, meaning he’s slightly behind. If he was where Bradley was, he’d be in a better position to contest. This is just fantastic offense. It doesn’t matter that Sengun blows the layup.
Lastly, here’s two really smart plays from KJ Martin as the roller. In the first, he makes the quick pass to Nwaba at the top of the key for 3. In the second, he shows incredible patience to watch the defenders scramble around in rotations, before casually taking it to the rim himself. This is great poise for the sophomore. When a player catches the ball in a 4v3 situation, the defense will likely quickly try to cheat and recover to the open man, anticipating the quick pass. KJ waits for them to do this, opening up the lane for himself.
Hopefully we see more KJ minutes over the rest of the season. He’s smart enough in these positions where you can play Christian Wood off-ball some, where he can give invaluable spacing compared to the likes of Tate, Theis, and Nwaba.
The Lakers didn’t use the show and recover a whole lot in the game, it wouldn’t make sense with guys like Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan, and LeBron James being better used in drop coverage. But they threw it out more than their first meeting and tried to catch Houston off guard with it. How the young Rockets adapted was impressive. Whether it was playcalling from coach Silas or their guards, they got players in the exact right positions to take away L.A’s best rim protectors from the paint, and they were mostly able to execute on the fly. Over 11 possessions, they generated three open 3-point shots, and four dunk or layup opportunities. Not a bad return. It was easily their most impressive offensive game of the year, for a number of reasons. They made the extra pass, there was more purposeful weakside action to disguise and manipulate positioning, and while there were still plenty of turnovers, they were playing against an extremely aggressive defense. There's no doubt that if Houston continues to play with this intelligence and effort (not to mention pace), they'd be in a much better standing the rest of the way.