Do the Rockets need to change their offensive approach to beat the Warriors?

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After dropping Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors 119-106 despite a 41-point, seven-assist outburst from James Harden, much has been made about the Houston Rockets’ offensive approach, which favors heavy doses of isolation from both Harden and backcourt mate Chris Paul. After embracing this system all season long, should the Rockets switch things up in hopes of defeating the Warriors? Two of our writers convene to discuss the issue. Our participants are

Allan: Isolation basketball. That was the topic of conversation regarding the Rockets’ performance in Game 1. Houston’s two stars in Chris Paul and James Harden were both creating a lot of opportunities for themselves in the lane and on the perimeter, but their teammates seemed to be content with Harden and Paul doing the bulk of the work.

They made it far too easy for the Warriors when it came to the defensive pressure they had to put on. They knew Harden and Paul were going to get theirs, but if they shut down the surrounding pieces, they’d have a chance to win.

And they did just that. With the Rockets wasting a lot of time dribbling and running down the 24-second clock, they turned the ball over three times on shot-clock violations in the first half. They played at a sluggish pace offensively which in turn, forces isolation in a last-ditched effort to break down the defense and score. 

The bench for the Rockets was dreadful as Luc Mbah a Moute had himself a horrible night missing every single one of his shots. 

But when taking a deeper look into the offensive production, the Rockets actually were at their best when Harden and Paul were in isolation situations. According to ESPN Stats and Info, on 15 isolation plays Harden produce 1.67 points per play. On four Paul isolation possessions, they produced 1.25 points per play while all other play types produced .89 points per play across 80 possessions.

Even though the isolation offense produced solid numbers, it catered to the Warriors’ defense.

In order for the Rockets to make positive adjustments to the already surprising results of their isolations, they need to produce more in transition. For the Warriors to only give up three fast break points, it shows the Rockets were not playing the up-tempo type of style we know they favor.

Boyer: I think the Rockets should stay true to who they are, but just tinker with their gameplan a little bit. There’s no need for the critics to force them into an identity crisis in the Western Conference Finals. Not after they won 60+ games and sewed up the No. 1 seed riding this very wave. 

Switching things up after a Game 1 in which James Harden went nuclear and nobody did much of anything else, would be relenting to the Warriors, and an indication that Golden State has Houston in a submissive condition after just one game. 

Stick to the isos, but Harden and Paulexpedite things when they’re in those situations to do away with the predictability that allowed Golden State’s defense to suffocate Houston in the second half of Game 1.

Houston Rockets
David J.Phillip / Associated Press

Too often both Paul and Harden would dish off the ball to the likes of Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, PJ Tucker and Trevor Ariza with the shot clock waning, giving them little to no time to get off a quality look. 

It’s on both CP3 and Harden to get their guys into a rhythm, while still balancing the ability to get their own. It hasn’t been too difficult for them all season long, but the Warriors present a challenge like no other, and the duo discovered that in the first game of this series. 

At the end of the day, it just boils down to Houston playing better. Ariza, the Rockets most capable Durant defender, was glued to the bench for most of the contest due to foul trouble, forced to watch KD run roughshod over the host of defenders that the Rockets threw in front of him to the tune of 37 points on 14-for-27 shooting. 

Offensively, Houston’s “others,” furnished them with zilch. Ariza, Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green, Ryan Anderson and Nene combined for 15 points, with three of those players failing to scratch at all. 

Houston’s shotmaking is intertwined with the isos. When guys are drilling jumpers, defenders are reluctant to help off on shooters, providing Harden and Paul with more room to operate in isolation situations. Guys need to begin stretching the floor like they’ve done all season long, and if they do not, Houston will be doomed. 

If the Rockets intend on posing a serious threat to the Warriors in this matchup, they’ll need their guys to start making shots and to also tighten up defensively. They played too casual on that end considering the opponent and the playoff setting. They need to be more alert and a little nastier in terms of showing resistance to Golden State. Roughening things up with brutish guys such as Tucker and Nene could prove to be a benefit. 

Getting stops will allow Houston to get out into transition, where Harden and Paul can make plays for either themselves or others, the Rockets can hit shooters flanking transition ball-handlers on the wing, and the crowd can get stirred up and really pulled into the game. 

Keeping their identity intact will prove to bode well for Houston, but the question is, well enough to win the series or just a game or two? We’ll see. 

Houston Rockets
Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Houston Chronicle



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