I'm not going to do much setup for this blog. The Rockets don't really deserve it and I have Jaden Ivey film I could be watching. Houston's defense has cratered over the last two weeks, which warrants a thorough inspection too, but let's just get to how awful the offense is right now.
Here is one of the first plays Houston ran in their last game against Philadelphia. As Porter Jr brings the ball up, Jae’Sean Tate comes off two screens to then screen and roll himself, with Theis and Wood flaring to spot up from the strong side perimeter.
Porter actually had ample opportunity to drive hard left into space, either with Jalen Green in the corner or with an empty corner once he baseline cuts. But that wasn’t the play. The play was for Jae’Sean Tate to roll to the rim? For Kevin Porter Jr to go right, and then…is he supposed to be able to throw a lob pass going away from himself, over traffic, with his off-hand, to 6’4 Jae’Sean Tate? Everyone in the arena knows Joel Embiid is going to drop and ignore Theis, so Porter runs into him and has to kick it out for a Theis 3. Was that the play? Did Houston start the game with a set to get Daniel Theis a 3-point shot?
Next we have a simple ballscreen between Jalen Green and Christian Wood. This gets Furkan Korkmaz off Green, and Tobias Harris switched on to him. Why? Is Tobias Harris a worse defender than Korkmaz? No. He’s longer and has a quicker step and contests the 3 pretty easily.
What's worse, in moving left off the screen Green moved to a packed strongside, with the 76ers in a box formation thanks to Christian Wood trying to post up at the free-throw line. The problem when Christian Wood plays the 4 is that he can’t punish smaller players. We’ve known this about his game all year now. At this point all that matters is who is switching onto the guard, and here Jalen opted to put a better defender onto him and moved into a worse driving position.
In this play Houston is going to run Jalen Green out of the corner and curl him around two weakside stagger screens. It’s how they get him the ball a lot of the time, and the Philly team knows it. Matisse Thybulle looks over and sees it coming and edges over to get in the way of Green to deter his immediate drive.
The purpose of this action is to have Green’s defender trailing behind the play, but he needs to attack immediately while catching the ball in motion. Thybulle makes that trickier here, but I’d like Green to trust his push-ahead dribble. I don’t blame him for not going for it on this play, because Thybulle is one of the most frequent pick pockets in the league, but watch out for this play next time you watch Houston. Green rarely get to attack off it, and it renders the entire setup pointless. His man just gets back in front of him anyway, often because the screeners don't commit to creating separation. This time Korkmaz gets the steal. Maybe I should have given him more credit for his defense.
I posted the clip below on Twitter a couple of days ago and it got a lot of reaction from frustrated Rockets fans. It really shows how lazy the players have gotten in this offense. They run Jalen Green off weakside screens for the 50th time this season, Wood and Theis really put the 'weak' in 'weakside' on their screening, Jalen is going left with his off-hand, and KPJs positioning as the passer invites help at the nail.
What is the point to all this? I paused it when he gets the ball, they just ran 11 seconds off the shot clock, and all they’ve achieved is getting Jalen Green the ball at the logo, with Houston in a very regular 1-2-2 alignment, and no defenders mismatched or behind the play. Houston is 20th in offensive pace, measured by average time to get to a shot per possession. Couldn’t Jalen Green just bring the ball up here and be in the exact same situation?
Next we see Houston use more weakside screening to get Jalen free of his defender, Myles Powell. For a few possessions before this, Powell had been up in Jalen's jersey, blowing up a dribble handoff and on another possession getting a steal. To get him some space, Green uses the screens but this time goes over the first, and under the second, losing Powell completely. But what comes of it? Nothing. They don't swing the ball to him on his preferred matchup. Matthews and Theis had a 2v1 situation on the wing, but Matthews didn't react quick enough to get into an effective action. This was their out of timeout play, it was specifically designed, and it's such a waste.
I want to show an example of how Houston can run this set effectively, looking at the recent game in Washington. I'll repeat the play twice in this clip. On the first watch, look at Porter Jr bringing the ball up and quickly going into a handoff with Eric Gordon, who then makes the pass to Green. This strongside action occupies Caldwell-Pope and stops him helping on Green's drive at the nail. On the second watch, see how Tate makes contact with his screen and Wood steps out to force the defender to take a wider route. Green catches (going right!) and is able to use the momentum to get the layup.
Then there's this, the first play of the game. Again it's KPJ and Gordon occupying the defenders strongside, but this time when Green catches the ball off the screens, he gives it right back to Gordon who turns it into a pick n roll with Wood. Green carries on his run to the opposite wing, which means his defender goes with him, which takes away the help at the nail for Wood to roll. When the defense collapses, he has open corners to hit, but manages to score by himself.
These sets can work. It takes the right personnel to achieve spacing, it requires perfect positioning and timing so the cutter can use screen momentum to get downhill. Most importantly, it takes purpose. Too often Christian Wood sets lazy screens, and too often there isn't enough thought going into who is on the court and where. And when things break down, that's where Houston devolves into putrid 5-out isolation basketball. I could post clips, but we've all seen it. Someone kicking to David Nwaba in the corner who has to try to create while everyone else stands around. Christian Wood trying to take a smaller guy off the dribble and hoisting an 18-footer. Jalen Green facing no driving lanes so having to settle for tough shot from deep. Half the season is now in the rearview mirror, yet Houston still can't execute on these pretty basic plays. They're slowing down in both the halfcourt and in transition. These days even a simple 21 series - which has been a staple of their offense going back to the early Mike D'Antoni days - takes them an age to get into. They need a reset, and they need one quick.