In another highly frustrating loss, the knives were sharpened and critics blasted Houston's offense and execution down the stretch - and rightfully so. The Rockets had a pitiful 77.8 offensive rating in the 4th, and this was after posting an 88.0 offensive rating in the final period of game 3 - 30.0 in overtime (most of which Harden was fouled out for).
Clearly the Rockets need to improve, and I myself took aim at Mike D’Antoni’s post-game comments about the ‘good looks’ Houston got, with screencaps of some of Harden’s late shotclock deep 3’s that were nowhere near close.
But, to his credit James Harden did say after the game ‘We strayed away from what we do on both ends of the ball... We weren't getting shots we wanted offensively... it was a disaster on both ends". I think they will look to adjust in game 5. I at least think the team knows they have to get better looks – more penetration, more shots around the rim. Whether or not they can do it in a close game down the stretch is another question. I wanted to look back at the 4th quarter, as upon returning to the film what struck me is Houston did run a lot of actions which got them looks, although there was bad execution and one or two highly questionable sets. But this wasn’t Harden dribbling into a step-back 3 over and over again, and I think I was unfair to suggest it was at the time. Most of that damage was done to end the 3rd quarter, as the Rockets substantially cooled off after an initial barrage of 3s and Harden resorted to his worst habits.
They were also terrible defensively, but I feel I have already covered what I would like to see Houston do on that end. All the quarters count of course, but I thought Houston came out in the 4th playing smarter offense, despite the results. The reason I am focusing on this is it gives hope that Mike D'Antoni and the team will make adjustments for game 5, and try to snap out of falling into their bad habits.
They started by running some plays with Eric Gordon, who had been playing well and had started to heat up from deep in the previous quarter. Unfortunately, this did not carry over and his offense took a turn for the worse. In the first play here, Harden pushes it in transition and PJ Tucker sets a perfect screen which gets Eric Gordon a great look to step into a shot.
That’s one bounce, feet set, and the shot should go up. However, Gordon, who was clearly trying to be more selective with his shot selection after shooting abysmally throughout the series, instead tries to drive and loses his handle. He recovers and takes it back out, settling for a worse, contested 3-point shot that misses.
A little while later we have a dribble handoff with Gordon curling around a stagger screen set by Harden and Tucker. Nerlens Noel does a good job anticipating the action and steps up to blow up the play, but it again looks as if Gordon had already lost his handle coming around the screen anyway.
Further down the stretch we then have two turnovers involving Gordon. First a bizzare sequence in which Harden seemingly anticipated a Gordon cut, but instead throws it out of bounds, and then Gordon attacks a closeout only to throw the ball way over Jeff Green’s head in the corner.
The Rockets ran some nice screen action to get some easier plays. Here Rivers comes around to set a guard-to-guard screen and both defenders go to Harden, leaving Rivers wide-open with the driving lane. Noel and Gallinari rotate and Rivers makes the read and great pass over the shoulder to Covington wide-open, and that shot simply has to go down. This is where the ‘we got the looks we wanted’ spiel is true. We can talk about getting higher percentage looks further down the stretch, where FG% rules over eFG%. But you’re not turning down wide-open catch and shoot options with 10 minutes still to go.
Rivers does a great job securing the rebound and I would love to see Harden attack immediately downhill off the catch, but he does use another Rivers screen to penetrate, take two defenders out of the play, and has the option of Tucker or Rivers to kick out to. He opts for the first, but Tucker is way off.
Jeff Green and Covington set a stagger screen here for Harden. Dort goes over to stick with Harden, Jeff Green rolls to take away Gallinari - and Harden could possibly find him in the lane over the top, but Covington fades and that’s not a bad choice either. He even attacks the closeout rather than settling for the 3, but that's not Covington’s game.
Covington should have taken the one dribble sidestep and let it fly, instead he drives and misses the open Rivers on the wing and gets tangled up with Adams for the jump ball. It's important to remember Houston doesn't have many great options in terms of guys putting the ball on the floor and making a secondary or tertiary play. This team is built to take the 3-point shot, that can't change now.
So once the shooters go cold, you might want the ball in Harden’s hands more, getting him driving to the basket, rather than seeing role players take so many 3-pointers. But the OKC defense is designed to stop that. House makes a great curl screen here which completely blindsides Lu Dort, but he still recovers and he and SGA block off Harden’s drive. But if a team is doubling Harden, I don’t know what else you can do other than hope that the free player drains the wide-open 3, and again House doesn’t here.
This is where the adjustment has to be made to free up Harden, and in fairness I think the Rockets did make it, just too late. I was screaming out on Twitter for Harden to run some 1-5 pick n roll with Jeff Green, and within the last 3 minutes they finally did. Green is Harden's only vertical spacing option, the only threat to get one or both downhill. The other screeners are pick n pop options to force a switch. The first play below sees Harden get all the way to the cup for the layup, the second sees the defenders double Harden, leaving Green free in the lane with only the smaller Gilgeous-Alexander rotating, and that’s another easy basket.
The play isn’t fool proof though. Harden uses the screen to get the switch off Dort here, which Green has consistently been successful at. He has the matchup he wants and attacks Schröder off the dribble but doesn’t get the foul call as Schröder reaches in with his left arm. On the second play Adams hedges up to block Harden’s drive as he gets around Dort, and this is where Green needs to roll into the open lane, but he fades instead. Harden is able to get around Adams anyway but gathers, meaning he can’t take it to Gallinari at the rim and instead has to pass out. Still, it gets another wide-open 3-pointer, which of course misses.
Green does roll here and as Schröder and SGA collapse he makes the kick out, but both defenders rotate exceptionally well to closeout both House and Gordon (although Green’s pass could perhaps have a little more zip to reach House quicker). Again, Gordon throws up another brick.
This isn’t to say Harden wasn’t aggressive enough, because some of his decision making was inexcusable. And this is really where he needs to see that his support team aren’t hitting shots and he has to take it upon himself. He has Gallinari as the last man back in transition here, being so kind as to even keep James to his favoured left hand. Instead, Harden takes the ball out to the corner and gives it up to Covington, who takes the contested shot over Adams and misses.
We also have this completely unacceptable play in transition where Harden again pushes and gets to the rim, but refuses the point-blank layup in order to kick out to Tucker, who has to beat more good rotation by OKC’s weakside defenders by passing to Gordon for yet another missed 3.
Seriously, look at this. I mean, a corner 3 is good, but do you know what’s better? An open layup. The Rockets scheme was always supposed to be ‘layups and 3s’. Not ‘3s at all costs’.
Then there’s this transition opportunity which Harden slows down to wave everybody off and attempt an ISO on Lu Dort, who has locked him down 1v1 all series.
We also have this absolutely brutal turnover down 1 with 45 seconds left on the clock, when Houston should have been looking for a 2 for 1 opportunity in transition. Instead Harden makes a lazy kick ahead to Gordon who is clearly covered by Gallinari, leading to a Schröder basket to put OKC 3 up.
He at least made two good plays right after, finally beating Dort off the dribble and finding a painfully wide-open Tucker in the corner to tie the game. And we’ve seen Tucker hit those big shots plenty of times before, just not this time. Not to mention Harden hit a 3-ball prayer off an inbounds shortly after, but it still wasn’t enough.
So, what's the point of all this? Well, Houston threw away game 4, they got into some terrible habits to end the 3rd and allowed OKC to chip back at the lead. They didn't capitalise on their hot shooting out of half-time by allowing Chris Paul to step into mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper. They threw that game through bad playmaking from James Harden, bad coaching and bad defense. But, looking at the 4th quarter, I think it's fair to say Houston did adjust down the stretch, but it wasn't enough. And the one or two ill-advised plays, such as passing out of an open layup, are enough to sink you when you're playing the best clutch team in the league. They should have nipped the Harden step-backs in the bud as the 3rd quarter was coming to a close. They should have reintroduced Jeff Green earlier to get him downhill. Green played 18 minutes in the 1st half but just 14 in the 2nd, taking away Houston's best options - the 1-5 or inverted 5-1 pick n roll. Reviewing the film, it's not as if Houston didn't try certain plays - handoffs, stagger screens, pick n roll etc. In the 4th, we saw only one James Harden isolation possession, and the step-back was put on ice. Looking at the 4th quarter, I think this team knows what to do tonight. Which is a better position to be in than some teams face after losing 2 in a row.
There is also, of course, the news that Russell Westbrook was upgraded to questionable as I type. In which case...