Playbook: Houston Rockets Flex STS Pitch Milwaukee

Mike D’Antoni has long been known for kickstarting the offensive revolution the NBA has enjoyed over the last 15 years. D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns ran the NBA ragged in the mid-2000s, leading the league in offensive rating in five of six years from 2005 to 2010 (in 2009, they finished a lowly third). Much of this was attributed to the Suns’ pick-and-roll attack, which featured Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire surrounded by three shooters for optimal floor spacing. Now, it feels almost antiquated to think of the NBA without this, as it’s become as much a part of the fabric of the game as the wooden court and leather basketball. When it’s all said and done, D’Antoni will go down as one of the most revolutionary basketball coaches in history for his innovations with Phoenix.

Now in Houston, D’Antoni continues to revolutionize offense by relying on heavy amounts of isolation and taking advantage of switching defenses to get James Harden and Chris Paul in good matchups. While an isolation-based attack isn’t nearly as pretty to watch as the Suns’ pick-and-roll offense, it’s extremely effective with the Rockets’ particular personnel.

D’Antoni’s teams have also developed the reputation of running very few set plays and instead relying on their overarching offensive principles to put up points. While this is true to some extent, there are moments when D’Antoni and his staff will break out a wonderful design, like this one I profiled last season, to combine the best of many different actions into one beautiful set.

Houston’s set plays tend to have lots of different actions and earn themselves long names as a result; this one is no exception. “Flex STS Pitch Chicago” is a mouthful, but it’s the name I’ve come up with to help us remember the various actions the players run through over the course of the set.

The first action is the “Flex” cut by James Ennis behind the “Flex” screen from Paul. Ennis starts in the left corner and cuts toward the rim using Paul’s screen to get there. As is very common in Flex actions, Paul immediately receives a screen himself, dubbed “screen the screener” or “STS”. In this case, there are two players in P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela screening for Paul.

From there, Paul executes a pitch with Harden, in which Paul cuts toward the ball and just plays catch with Harden as Harden makes his move toward the rim. In other versions of this same action, Paul may keep the ball instead of pitching it back to Harden — watch how Ennis moves back to where he came from rather than exiting to the right corner. If he instead continues to the right corner, then Paul’s drive to the rim is met with more resistance from Ennis’s defender.

The last aspect of the play is “Milwaukee” action, in which a hand-off is immediately followed by a ball screen. Most of you are aware of “Chicago” action, in which a down screen is followed by a handoff, this is essentially the same thing with the ball starting in a slightly different place, hence the name “Milwaukee”. At this point, it’s just a standard pick-and-roll with Harden and Capela moving in concert toward the rim.

Watch the play again in full, this time with annotations: