In Game 2, Utah dropped their big men very deep in pick-and-roll defense, mimicking the San Antonio Spurs’ strategy from last year’s second round against these same Rockets. Just like San Antonio was able to do with Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, Utah had Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors essentially defending the pick-and-roll from the restricted area, only jumping out at the last moment when it was clear the ball handler was pulling up for a mid-range jumper. Houston dealt with the same issues last year against the Spurs and were better prepared for it this year, both in personnel and tactics, but the Jazz were still able to stymie the Rockets’ high-octane attack in their series-tying victory.
The Rockets famously eschew mid-range jumpers in favor of three-pointers and layups, to the point that they’re unwillingness to shoot from between those two areas can become a detriment when those are the only open shots they can get. In last year’s playoffs, the Spurs were the first time to really lay back and allow Harden to turn the corner and get downhill toward the paint, only to be met with a wall right at the rim. Utah took that page right out of San Antonio’s playbook, especially with Gobert, who set up shop right underneath the basket in pick-and-roll defense and was never sucked out by Paul or Harden being able to walk into a short jumper. A lot of big men will get antsy seeing an offensive player so open with the ball in his hands, especially after a good screen takes out the ball handler’s defender, but Gobert and Favors did a wonderful job holding their positions in the restricted area and making sure only to contest when they were sure the jumper was going up.
Despite Paul, one of the best mid-range shooters in NBA history, joining the Rockets, Utah held steady in their deep drop strategy. It worked in Game 2, as Paul finished just 3-for-10 from mid-range and hit just one of his patented free-throw line jumpers. Quite a few pick-and-roll possessions for Houston looked like this:
Donovan Mitchell fights over the screen from Clint Capela and Gobert drops very deep into the paint, allowing Paul to turn the corner and get a head of steam toward the rim, but once it’s clear that Paul is open, Gobert doesn’t flinch. Instead of panicking and jumping out to guard the open man with the ball, Gobert stays put, ceding the elbow jumper to Paul without so much as putting a hand in the air to contest, instead focusing on finding Capela on the boxout.
Not contesting at all won’t work long-term for the Jazz and they know it; this was one of the only mid-range jumpers that went entirely uncontested for Houston. Later in the first quarter, Utah once again dropped deep with Favors, but once Paul pulled up from the same left elbow, he leapt out at him to contest:
Same thing here with Eric Gordon in pick-and-roll:
Houston’s seen this movie before and it didn’t end well, so they have some counters built into their offensive system to bring Utah’s big men out of the paint. In particular, the Rockets employed more handoffs and staggered ball screens to put the ball handler’s defender further behind the play:
Favors drops deep as soon as Gordon comes off the Milwaukee action (in which a player gets a handoff and immediately receives a ball screen), but because of the extra screen, Royce O’Neale is too far behind the play to properly contest from behind and Gordon walks into an open three.
To open the third quarter, Houston ran a variation of their Pistol Shuffle Flop set I covered last week. Harden flips the ball ahead to Trevor Ariza and cuts through to set the back screen for Paul on the opposite wing, but rather than Paul flopping out of the screen to get the ball at the top of the key, he sets the down screen Harden to come up for the handoff in what’s typically referred to as “Chicago” action. All the movement before what essentially is a DHO-and-roll between Harden is essentially and Capela throws the Utah defense out of balance and Harden is able to curl the handoff and get into the lane for a lob to the rolling Capela.
The Rockets also changed the angles and placements of their ball screens to lure Gobert and Favors out of the paint. Watch below how Capela sets the ball screen for Harden well outside the three-point line, but angles it in such a way that O’Neale still goes over:
Utah was perfectly content to let Harden take as many midrange jumpers as he wanted or to attack the rim with their big men underneath, but when the screen is set as high as it is in the above clip, Harden’s pull-up jumper is a three-pointer, which lures Favors out of his normal spot at the dotted line to contest. Once the space opens up behind Favors, Harden is able to attack, crossing over and getting Favors behind him for the easy layup.
When the screen was set right at the three-point line, Capela set it as high up the floor as possible in an attempt to get the Jazz defenders to drop under the screen. With the Utah big men so deep in the paint, there was no immediate help, which led to an open three-pointer for the ball handler:
Overall, the Jazz had a lot of success dropping deep in the paint and daring Paul and Harden to pull up for lightly-contested jumpers, but Houston unveiled some tricks to counter this strategy. As the series shifts to Utah for Games 3 and 4, it will be interesting to see what defense Quin Snyder deploys and what adjustments he makes to the opportunities the Rockets were able to generate with some small tweaks.