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.

Damian Lillard reportedly playing through separated ribs suffered in Game 2

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Midway through the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Kevon Looney both dove for a loose ball near midcourt. Looney got it, threw the ball ahead to Stephen Curry, and in the process rolled over Lillard.

Lillard suffered separated ribs on that play, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Here is the play.

Lillard has shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) since the injury, including 5-of-18 in the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 loss.

Lillard shot 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) before the injury — the Warriors trapping him and forcing the ball out of his hands has been an issue for Lillard in this series, long before his collision with Looney.

Lillard himself did not bring the injury up, it was leaked. When asked in his postgame press conference Saturday night, Lillard admitted to being tired but would not use it as an excuse.

“Everybody’s tired,” Lillard said. “It’s the third round of the playoffs after a long season. Our last series, I got a lot of attention. The team was giving me a lot of attention and same thing in this series. It takes a lot to deal with that and then go out and chase guys around on the defensive end.

“But everybody’s putting that effort out. I mean, I feel fine enough to go out there and play 40 minutes like I have been, but you know, it’s definitely tiring.”

And he’s playing through pain on top of it.

Portland is already down 0-3 in this series and faces a win-or-it’s-over Game 4 on Monday night at the Moda Center.

Game 3 Déjà vu: Warriors slow down Lillard, come from behind to win, take 3-0 series lead

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It was Déjà vu all over again for the Warriors and Trail Blazers. And it all started with Damian Lillard.

The Warriors didn’t re-invent the wheel in this playoff series, they just have aggressively executed the game plan that has troubled Portland in the playoffs for years:

Take the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, dare anyone else to beat you.

Oklahoma City and Denver could not do it, but Golden State has. Every chance the Warriors get they trap Lillard off the pick-and-roll, and even when they don’t do that the Warriors show the second defender early. Lillard has struggled with his shot against that, he was 5-of-18 shooting in Game 3, and in the series he is now 15-of-46 (32.6 percent).

What Lillard is doing right is making the smart pass to the big on the short roll at the free throw line, creating a 4-on-3 (or sometimes 3-on-2) for the Trail Blazers to attack, but they have not consistently taken advantage of that.

“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play, and for me, I try to do that for as long as possible,” Lillard said. “You know, as long as I can do it and we can stay in the game or have a lead like we have the last two games when I’m just making the right plays, and guys are doing what they’re supposed to do on the weak side.

“But I think in Golden State’s minds, they know at some point, if we’re going to beat them, I’m going to have to be rolling. They are just kind of banking on the fact that we’ll just live with what’s happening right now. Keep getting the ball out of his hands and you know, at some point, we’ll probably be able to take over the game.”

Golden State did take over the game, in part bucause they have a playmaker as good as Draymond Green.

Green is the master of the short roll, and on Saturday night he was doing that, plus driving end-to-end, owning the glass, and generally being the best player on the floor on his way to 20 points on 12 shots, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond, he was like a wrecking ball out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame. “He was just destroying every in his path. The pace he was generating was incredible and it seemed like he never got tired.”

Green was critical to another dominant Golden State third quarter that sparked a comeback from 18 down in the third to win 110-99.

Golden State now has a stranglehold on the series, up 3-0. Game 4 is in Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors are now 4-0 without Kevin Durant, still out with a strained calf (he’s not expected to return this series). Stephen Curry, who had 36 in this win, has scored at least 33 in each of those wins.

In the most important ways, Game 3 felt like a replay of Game 2, just in a different arena.

Feeding off that home crowd and energy, the Trail Blazers raced out to an early lead and were the better team through the first 24 minutes. Portland shot 11-of-22 outside the paint in the first half, compared to 9-of-27 for Golden State. Portland had a 125.7 offensive rating in the first half thanks to that shooting, plus grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.8 percent of their missed shots.

More than the offense, Portland played good half-court defense in the first half, taking the Warriors out of their rhythm. They trapped Curry and Thompson with size — Moe Harkless and Myers Leonard if possible — and the Warriors struggled to adapt

Leonard played the best basketball of his career in the first half, with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he finished with 16 points) and making plays like this:

All that had the Trail Blazers up 13 at the half. It was impressive, then again they were up 15 at the half in Game 2. The Warriors were not fazed.

“It all started with our second half defense, we held them to 33 points,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “We had amazing contributions off the bench, every single guy came in and made an impact.”

That bench mattered. The Golden State starters and core lineups got back in the game, taking a small lead, but when Green and Curry rested to start the fourth, Portland left their starters in and were still -3 in those critical minutes.

Curry and Green came in rested, and the Warriors leaned on them heavily the rest of the way with the Curry/Green pick-and-roll — Portland has no answers for that.

The Warriors run also seemed to shake the Portland offense. The Trail Blazers shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) from three after the first quarter, and for the game the Blazers missed 13 free throws (they shot just 60.6 percent as a team from the stripe).

Portland was led by CJ McCollum, who had 23 points on 20 shots.

He’s going to have to do better, Lillard is going to have to do a lot better, and the Blazers are going to have to find something special in the third quarter Monday night, or they will be swept right out of the playoffs.

Blazers passing impressive as they push first-half lead to double digits (VIDEO)

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Back home, the Portland Trail Blazers looked far more comfortable.

Feeding off the energy of a loud crowd at the Moda Center, the Trail Blazers stretched out to a first-half lead thanks to a level of impressive ball movement and energy we have not seen from them all series. Check it out.

This may go down as the Myers Leonard game, he had 13 points in the first half.

Portland stretched their lead to as much as 18 and was up by 13 at the half. I wouldn’t call that comfortable because, well, Golden State, but it’s the best the Blazers have played all series.

Rockets will not bring defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik back next season

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Before the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 112.2 (points allowed per 100 possessions), 25th in the NBA.

After the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 105.3, second best in the NBA. In the playoffs, the Rockets had a 107.3 defensive rating despite six games against the Warriors.

There are multiple reasons for that change, but a key one: The Rockets backed up the Brinks truck and brought assistant coach and defensive specialist Jeff Bzdelik out of retirement to help fix the problems.

Bzdelik will not be back with the team next season, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Technically Bzdelik was fired, although that is not an accurate description of really what happened here. This was not because of poor job performance, it was a question of if he really wanted to be there, and the Rockets wanted someone all-in. Understandably. This is a Houston team still on the cusp of a title, just one that has run headlong into the Warriors dynasty in recent years. A dynasty that likely will look a lot different next year, opening the door in the West. The Rockets want to push through that door.

That said, replacing Bzdelik will not be easy.

It’s one of a number of challenging choices for the Rockets this summer.