Playoff Playbook: Houston Rockets Pistol Shuffle Flop

Very few of the Rockets sets rely on both James Harden and Chris Paul to play off the ball, but Pistol Shuffle Flop is one of their more unique plays in that regard. Like Stephen Curry in Golden State, both Harden and Paul can be at their most dangerous when they’re setting screens for one another, striking panic in a defense that can’t possibly cover all its bases nor predict what might come next. Houston uses this to their advantage in certain moments and while keeping the ball out of their hands isn’t something they’ll do at the end of games, this set play can be a very effective way to throw off a defense expecting a steady diet of pick-and-roll and isolation basketball.

The play starts with Pistol action, in which the ball handler will bring it up along the sideline and fire it ahead to the wing. From there, Pistol can flow into a multitude of different actions, from a handoff back to the point guard for a quick bucket to staggered ball screens for the wing. There are entire offensive playbooks filled with these sets, as Pistol creates ball and man movement early in the possession and has a lot of versatility in personnel that can run it.

In Pistol Shuffle Flop, once Harden or Paul throw the ball ahead to the wing, they’ll cut through toward the middle of the floor, then curl back around toward the opposite wing, where their superstar counterpart is waiting. So far, the play looks exactly like a normal Shuffle set, where a player will cut from one wing to the opposite block. In most situations, this cut is merely a distraction for the defense while the offense executes screen-the-screener action, but a few teams do use it as an outlet for their offense. Houston, meanwhile, fakes the Shuffle cut altogether and “flops” out of it, bringing the guard back toward the top of the key, where he gets a dribble handoff from a big man.

Paul begins the play by throwing the ball ahead to Trevor Ariza and cutting through to the paint. While he does that, P.J. Tucker is already there, moving through toward the left corner. Paul curls back around and sets the screen for Harden to execute the Shuffle cut while Ariza throws the ball to Clint Capela at the top of the key. From here, the defense is expecting Harden to cut through and Paul to wheel around Capela for a handoff or perhaps just pop back to the three-point line for an open jumper if both defenders commit to Harden’s cut. Rather than get into any of that, Harden “flops” out of the cut, taking the handoff from Capela himself and curling into the lane toward his strong left hand to get an easy alley-oop to the big man.

In Game 3 against Minnesota, the Rockets ran a pair of variants to Pistol Shuffle Flop. To open the game, Harden brought the ball up and set the screen for Paul, flipping the court so Paul could attack toward his right hand. However, as soon as he took the handoff, Tucker stepped out of the corner and set a quick flare screen for Ariza, who nailed the open three:

In the second half, Houston came back to it, this time running a counter action in which Paul didn’t make the Shuffle cut nor flop out of it; he curled right around and set the same screen for Harden that Harden was previously setting for him.

For as little as Houston runs set plays, Pistol Shuffle Flop is one of their more successful ones, since they can do lots of different things with it to keep the defense on their toes. Minnesota had the set scouted well and knew what they wanted to do against it, but Mike D’Antoni had a couple of variants up his sleeve to keep his team ahead of the Timberwolves at all times. The base play has everything the Rockets want from a set play: Harden and Paul screening for each other, one of them getting the ball attacking toward their strong hand, and a spaced floor with Capela rolling right down the middle. Handoffs are already the new pick-and-roll in terms of how popular they’re becoming and how successful they are, but running pre-action to disguise the handoff itself and who will take it makes it that much harder for the defense to cover.