As two teams become more familiar with one another over the course of a playoff series, weaknesses in individual players become magnified. If a guy can’t dribble with his left hand, you can bet the defense will shade him further and further left. If a guy always turns over his right shoulder in the post, you’ll see defenders camp on that side and force him to either give up the ball or go to a weaker move. The most obvious and harmful of these is when a perimeter player can’t shoot—being able to freely help into the paint mucks up everything an offense wants to do. In Game 2 of their Western Conference Finals series against the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets got even more aggressive with their non-guarding of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, using P.J. Tucker in particular to help defend the Warriors’ more threatening players.
Showing a ball handler multiple bodies (roll credits!) is an important part of keeping him from converting at the basket, if he even gets there in the first place. In a lot of cases, offensive players will settle for midrange jumpers or pull the ball out to run another action, rather than attempt to drive through two, three, and four defenders to get to the rim. A lot of teams are happy to help off Green and Iguodala when those guys are at the three-point line, but it takes strong communication and trust between defenders to send help from those guys when they’re hanging out in the dunker spot along the baseline, just a few feet from the rim. Watch below how Stephen Curry gets by James Harden, but Eric Gordon jumps off Iguodala to stop Curry from attempting the layup:
A consistent theme throughout Game 2 was not just the inability of Green and Iguodala to space the floor, but their collective unwillingness to shoot when they did have the ball in a good position. Iguodala catches the ball from Curry right under the basket, but Harden immediately applies pressure and he’s uncomfortable going up for a short floater or hook shot, instead kicking the ball out to Green, who misses the three-pointer.
Iguodala is open along the baseline when Curry hits him, but the late switch from Harden is key to deterring Iguodala from going straight up for a layup. Harden’s been poor in isolation and pick-and-roll defense throughout the first two games of this series, but he gave more effort in other areas in Game 2, both in these late switches and in denying off ball without getting beat for backdoor layups.
The Rockets did the same against Durant, showing him bodies and keeping their hands high in passing lanes to put as much difficulty on the Warriors’ star as possible. Watch how Clint Capela picks up Durant on the early screen from Kevon Looney but is able to play him high up the floor because he knows the help is behind him:
Shaun Livingston cuts from the right wing across the floor to give Durant more room to go to his right, but Gordon pays him no mind, setting up shop in the center of the lane to give Capela the help he needs. Gerald Green steps up off Iguodala as well to put another body and two arms between Durant and the basket and Houston is able to deflect Durant’s inside pass to Livingston.
Late in the first quarter, Houston is able to help off Iguodala and Livingston again to contain Curry, who had Gerald Green, a strong mismatch, lined up across from him:
Livingston sets the initial screen and “rolls” until he’s right under the basket, but once again, the Rockets are only concerned with getting the ball out of Curry’s hands. Both Gordon and Tucker step into the paint to show Curry multiple bodies (roll credits again!) in front of the rim, which leaves Iguodala open in the corner, a shot Tucker only half-heartedly contests.
Whether it was strong advance scouting or Chris Paul’s preternatural feel for the game, Houston was able to take advantage of Green’s unwillingness to shoot contested shots in the lane a few times in Game 2, the most prominent of which came on this Paul steal in the second quarter:
The ball is entered to Durant on the right side of the floor against Gordon, so Tucker has to come over to help. This leaves Paul to contend with both Green and Looney, another spacing-challenged player the Warriors have been playing heavy minutes in this series. Green cuts across Paul’s face, but as soon as the pass comes in, Paul falls back to grab the steal, knowing Green always prefers to pass rather than score for himself.
There were a handful of times Houston’s aggressive help broke down, mostly when the weak-side defenders forgot to help the helper in the paint or the Warriors’ spacing and personnel warranted staying closer to the three-point line. On this sideline-out-of-bounds (SLOB) play, watch how Klay Thompson’s movement from the paint to the left wing occupies Paul to the point that he’s not available to help onto Livingston under the rim after Gordon left him to cover Curry:
Earlier in the game, Houston was caught out when Capela crossed the lane to help on a Durant drive and gave up an easy putback to Looney:
Houston’s aggressiveness in showing multiple bodies to Curry and Durant and helping from the right non-threats in the Golden State offense paid dividends in Game 2 and it makes sense that they’ll continue to do the same things going forward. Steve Kerr will have his guys ready, both tactically and mentally, to take advantage of the Rockets’ help and make sure Green, Iguodala, and Livingston are aggressive themselves when they get the ball, especially under the basket. The seesaw will continue through Game 3—if those guys are able to get a few easy layups early in the game, that will dial back some of the Houston pressure and allow Curry and Durant more freedom to get their shots.