The Indiana Pacers got off to a slow start last night against the Houston Rockets and never recovered. After a first quarter where they were outscored 35-18, the Pacers ended up being beat by a final score of 118-95.
The Pacers biggest problem was dealing with the Houston Rockets best player in James Harden.
The Pacers simply had no answer for how to defend Harden on the pick and roll, and Harden shredded the Pacers defense with pocket passes and lobs and did whatever he wanted all night with little resistance on his way to 26 points, 15 assists and only three turnovers.
“We tried about everything we could do except stopping him,” Head Coach Nate McMillan said after the game on guarding Harden in the pick and roll. “… He was picking us apart in that action.”
Watching the film shows the Pacers attempting at least two different kinds of pick-and-roll coverage, and both has very little success.
In the first half, the Pacers had Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis play a coverage in between showing high to allow the Harden’s defender to get back onto his man and playing back far enough to be ready for a Harden drive or to defend the roll man if Harden passes the ball.
The way the Pacers played it in the game’s first half, Harden found pocket pass after pocket pass to throw to his rolling big men in Clint Capela and Tarik Black as Sabonis and Turner were too close to Harden to react to the perfectly-timed pass.
Harden racked up double-digit assists in the first half in large part because of this before the Pacers changed strategies. Part of the problem for the Pacers is that they don’t have defenders like George Hill and Paul George around that are tremendous at fighting over screens, so they may feel like their defensive options are limited.
In the second half, the Pacers tried switching everything. No matter who was guarding the roll man.
This put young center Myles Turner in the unenviable position of guarding Harden on the perimeter in space. While Turner managed to block a couple of Harden’s shots (Welcome to the Myles High Club), Harden won the vast majority of these battles.
So, were these really the only options the Pacers could try against Harden? Let Harden pick you apart with the pass or let Harden dictate who he wants to go one-on-one against on every play?
While Harden is one of the game’s best players and it’s very hard to completely shut him down, especially in this system, he does turn the ball over a bunch (4.8 turnovers per game).
The Pacers, however, did not force many turnovers from Harden with their defensive strategy. Here are a few things that other teams have attempted to varying degrees of success.
An important thing to know about the Houston Rockets is that they do not take mid-range jump shots. It’s pretty much all layups or 3-pointers if they can. So how do you take advantage of that?
The Charlotte Hornets tried doing so by having Dwight Howard and other bigs play ridiculously far back on the pick and roll at least a couple times when guarding Capela or Black. Essentially daring them to take those midrange shots.
These were two bad plays in a game in which Harden had a triple double and the Rockets won by 16, so playing this far back wasn’t extremely successful. The Pacers used to do similar things with Roy Hibbert, but not nearly as far back as the Hornet defenders is in the previous videos. The Sixers executed the old-Pacers strategy to perfection here.
The Sixers have played the Rockets (11-3) as good as anyone so far this season as they lost one game by one point and won another by eight. Harden had a combined 15 turnovers in his two games against the Sixers. Turner’s greatest ability on defense is his rim protection and while he isn’t a complete master of positioning like Hibbert was at his peak, this would seem to be the best path for potential success as a unit.
Another option is to try and trap Harden with a double team by having the screener’s defender show high and stay on Harden once he comes over the screen. The Golden State Warriors, blessed with many great defenders, execute it perfectly here with Klay Thompson and Zaza Pachulia.
The problem with this method and the playing back method is that when Ryan Anderson sets the screen, it leaves him open on the perimeter. The same problem the Pacers saw play out over and over again when Hibbert struggled dealing with a similar situation in the 2014 postseason against the Hawks.
But when the screener is a non-shooter Black or Capela, either of these strategies could have at least been attempted, and the Pacers didn’t do a great job of limiting the Rockets 3-point attempts anyway as they ended up taking 47 last night.
The Pacers try to double (sort of) here with Thaddeus Young, but not enough pressure is applied to Harden as he easily gets the ball to Anderson for an open three.
The Pacers put up very little resistance all night as defenders didn’t fight through screens well or ever try to trap Harden with aggression.
It’s puzzling to hear McMillan say they tried everything they could against Harden in the pick and roll, but perhaps because the Pacers do not practice these other schemes, they do not feel comfortable running them in a single game.
The Pacers only play the Rockets one more time this season, but every team runs the pick and roll in the NBA. The Pacers have plenty of work to do in defending it. Short of a scheme change, it’s hard to see the Pacers improving a whole lot this season.