Video Breakdown: How James Harden leads the NBA in assists

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James Harden is stacking assists like they’re pancakes for the Houston Rockets this year, and perhaps the only player standing between him and the 2017 NBA MVP is Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook. While both have penchant for triple-doubles, it’s Harden’s passing that has taken an eye-popping leap this year and deserves closer examination.

Harden’s per-100 possession passing statistics have gone up about 60 percent over his last two years in Houston, and he’s now averaging nearly 12 dimes per-game as he distributes proportionally to Houston’s rim-rolling big men and myriad 3-point shooters. That’s incredible considering his usage rate has not notably increased.

So how has Harden done this, how has his passing affected the Rockets offense, and is there any possible way to stop him?

Find out by watching this week’s NBA Playbook in the video above or by reading the text version below.

Gravity

It’s no secret Harden is a monster on drives and on the pick-and-roll, and his ability to penetrate and draw defenders around him has been a big part of his success this season.

Houston runs this double screen pick-and-roll play that has a lot of options on it. You’ve got two screeners here at the top, with one set to pop to the arc and one ready to dive hard to the lane.

As Harden rounds the pick, you’ve got all three defenders sliding and looking at Harden. Clint Capela’s body angle shows he’s just going straight for the bucket, and because both Harden and Ryan Anderson are shooters, the Cavaliers decide to play up toward the arc and leave the paint unguarded.

Film study reveals Harden often likes to pass to the corner opposite the direction of his drive. As Harden dribbles on this play, not only does he draw multiple defenders as before, but as Nene takes a purposefully wide roll angle to the hoop, that draws down the defending guard to help out. Eric Gordon is then left with enough space to get himself a 3-pointer.

Transition

Mike D’Antoni’s system has encouraged Harden to get the ball early and make a decision, sometimes passing at the half court line or even earlier.

Here are a couple examples where Harden receives the ball, then makes a decision strikingly early to get the ball out to either Anderson or Trevor Ariza. Teams need to pressure Harden when he’s the main recipient of a defensive rebound, lest he hit his teammates filling the wings.

It’s difficult to guard, happens often, and it’s something to understand about this Rockets offense as it relates to Harden’s success passing.

Rim runners like Capela have a mandate to run as hard as they can and in transition and to the bucket. Likewise, Houston’s shooters have a mandate to get to the wings as fast as they can in transition and go up almost immediately with their shot.

Forward Shooting

Anderson and Ariza have been critical to Harden’s success this year, and some of the plays Houston runs for these two are super fun.

We saw this dive play get Capela a bucket earlier in the video, but the Rockets also use it to get 3-pointers. Here against the Cavaliers, Houston is running it on the sideline, with Capela and Anderson again as the screeners.

Capela dives to the lane and this time takes Tristan Thompson with him — remember last time Cleveland played it high — and LeBron and JR Smith have to stop Harden’s drive to his strong side.

Anderson has to do is fade to the arc.

This is another set the Rockets run with frequency, with a double screen to the corner by the two posts as Ariza comes to the arc. The secondary action comes when Capela then screens down for Anderson as he pops to the 3-point line.

How to Stop Harden

Like with Westbrook, there haven’t been many teams that have been able to stop Harden. However, the Rockets have had a couple of losses where Harden hasn’t notched too many assists, and teams have helped slow Harden’s passing by doing three things:

  • Played extremely soft ICE on the pick and roll with non-shooting Rockets big men, sealing off Harden’s passing lane to the roller.
  • Kept their forwards from digging off Houston’s 3-point shooting front court players.
  • Closed on shooters multiple feet beyond the 3-point line, higher than you’d expect.

For example, in the following two videos, watch the outside defenders stick to Houston’s 3-point shooters to force Harden to try to finish at the rim:

In both plays by the Spurs and the Jazz, none of the wing defenders help to dig down, instead staying on the 3-point shooters on the arc. Some of them don’t even step foot inside the paint, and in fact against Utah Gordon Hayward actually moves slightly toward his own player as Harden drives.

They’d rather give up a well-contested shot at the rim with the two primary defenders than help and leave Houston’s shooters open. They’re betting on themselves being able to stop him with multiple defenders down low than have 3-point attempts go up without pressure.

Put that together with guys like LaMarcus Aldridge closing out hard, playing way higher than he normally would, and you’ve got a way to cull some of Harden’s assists.

But, let’s be honest: not really.

Like with Russell Westbrook, not many teams have been able to stop James Harden. The man is a passing machine, and it will be difficult to chose between him and Russ for the MVP this year.

Jamal Crawford says Lonzo Ball should not change his shot

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Lonzo Ball‘s shot has become a running gag around the NBA. During pregame warmups this season it looked like LeBron James and Joel Embiid mocked/tried to imitate it. TNT’s Inside the NBA was asking if it was worse than Charles Barkley’s golf swing, and the crew on that show mocks it all the time.

Ball is shooting 30.3 percent overall this season, and 23 percent from three. He’s shooting just 42.1 percent in the restricted area (it’s not just his jumper that is off). He’s shooting 37.5 percent on pull-up jumpers. He’s shooting 22.5 percent on shots when there is nobody within six feet of him (stats via NBA.com).

Is it time to tear down Ball’s awkward release and rework his jumper? Jamal Crawford, a guy who knows something about getting buckets in the NBA, said no, speaking on CBS Sports’ Flagrant 2 Podcast.

“No, I wouldn’t (change his shot). He’s done it his whole life. Even if he struggled, I’m sure he’s struggled, but when he makes 10 in a row you won’t change it then so I’d just keep it consistent.”

Crawford also said he sees a real star in Ball.

“Star. Absolutely a star. I love watching him play. He plays the right way. He doesn’t play for stats. He’ll give the ball up early when he could easily hold it to get an assist. He’s making the right play if it was a hockey assist he’d get 20 a game cause he’s always passing up early. He seems like a great teammate. If you look at all his interviews…he’s always well spoken he’s always about the team.”

Luke Walton has the Lakers players taking and making 100 threes at each practice, and he continues to encourage Ball to shoot his way out of this slump. Magic Johnson has said the Lakers would not change Ball’s jumper during the season.

But if Ball does not find a rhythm and is under 40 percent for the season on jumpers, come next summer the Lakers have some decisions to make. And tearing down and rebuilding Ball’s shot is a long process that will take more than one summer of hard work.

PBT Podcast: Celtics win over Warriors, all things Boston with A. Sherrod Blakely

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The Boston Celtics are for real.

In case you had any doubts, they ran their streak to 14 wins in a row by coming from 17 down – twice — to beat the Golden State Warriors. The Celtics have the best defense in the NBA, and it threw the Warriors off their game, something few teams have been able to do over the past few years.

Kurt Helin welcomes in A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston to talk about what this win means to the Celtics, why their defense is so good, how Kyrie Irving is fitting in, how young stars such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are rising up, and what is the deal with Marcus Smart. Also, there is a lot of Brad Stevens love.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Grizzlies’ Mike Conley out at least two weeks with sore heel, Achilles

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Injuries are already starting to shape the playoff chase in the West — Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month in Utah, and the Clippers have lost six in a row as they battle injuries to three starters.

Now add the Memphis Grizzlies to the mix.

Mike Conley, the point guard who, along with Marc Gasol, is crucial to Memphis’ success, will be out at least two weeks to rest a sore left heel and Achilles, the team announced Friday. He could be out longer, Conley has had issues with this Achilles before, the team will want to be cautious, and by far the best treatment is rest.

Conley averages 17.1 points per game, is a great floor general running the offense, and is a quality defender at the point.

Memphis is 7-7 on the season and tied with Oklahoma City for the final playoff slot in the West, but the Grizzlies have dropped six of their last eight. What’s more, they are entering a gauntlet part of the schedule without Conley: Their next game is against Houston, then Portland, and in the next 10 they have the Nuggets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Spurs (twice). The danger is they fall far enough back from the playoff chase they struggle to catch up again.

Expect to see a lot more Tyreke Evans, who has been strong as a sixth man but now will have much more asked of him. Also, more playmaking duties will fall to Gasol, working out of the elbow, and both Chandler Parsons and Mario Chalmers will get the ball in their hands. The question is what do they do with it.

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.