HOUSTON — Back in the day, when Mike D’Antoni had a mustache, the Phoenix Suns took the NBA by storm. D’Antoni’s Suns led the NBA in offensive pace and scoring behind point guard Steve Nash.
Now D’Antoni, sans mustache, is with the Houston Rockets, and he’s turned over his high-powered offense to James Harden. But the Rockets’ offense isn’t about pace. In fact, Houston is 10th in the NBA in pace, at 100.1, and has been in the middle of the pack for most of the season.
So what gives?
“I think James and every point guard has their pace, it’s whatever they’re comfortable with,” D’Antoni said. “I think people have a misconception of pace. It’s how the ball goes; it’s once you get it over half court, we’re pretty quick at it. You play it all kinds of different ways.”
On the season, the Rockets lead the league in points after an opponent’s made shot at 1.12 and are seventh in seconds per possession at 16.2. The Rockets are averaging 0.972 points per play in the half court, which ranks fourth in the league. In transition, they’re at 1.14 points per play, which ranks just 10th because transition opportunities are generally much better.
The pace, as far as the Rockets are concerned, is not about rushing it up the floor, but doing something when you get there.
“The best part is me throwing advance passes and guys are scoring and guys are running hard,” Harden said. “Our bigs and our wings are running hard, getting easy layups and easy 3s, that’s the fun part.”
Pushing the ball up the floor isn’t the main goal of Harden as the point guard. He takes his time as he looks for a long pass for an easy layup or an open 3. If that’s not there, Harden brings it across the timeline with 18 or 19 seconds left on the shot clock. That’s when Harden does his best work.
“I think James and every point guard has their pace, it’s whatever they’re comfortable with.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni
The Rockets will send a big man, normally Clint Capela, to screen for Harden. If Capela rolls with a defender, Harden keeps the ball, continuing to look for an open man.
Ryan Anderson, the stretch 4 the Rockets signed in the offseason, will also screen for Harden and remain in 3-point range looking for a shot.
Harden will also get double-teamed in the frontcourt, allowing Anderson or someone else to remain free for an open jumper. Harden leads the league in assists at 11.4 per game and is fourth in points per game at 28.5. He also leads the league in points per assists (27.6) and potential assists (21.1).
The playmaking ability of Harden has opened a door for his teammates to produce more plays. Anderson’s range has increased this season to a career-high 18.6 feet per shot attempt. Anderson, for the first time in the last two seasons, is shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range.
“It’s funny because sometimes I don’t even realize how deep they are,” Anderson said of his shots. “But being able to spread the court that much around James gives him that much room. If you move back a few feet on the perimeter, there really haven’t been very many teams where a guy is going to be in the paint when I’m standing outside the 3-point line. So guys really hug up (the lane). Imagine having James having that much room, where I guess guys hug up, I guess, 3 feet off the 3-point line during some moments. It gives us a real advantage.”
Trevor Ariza has attempted 155 3-point shots this season, up from the 120 he attempted through 21 games last season.
Capela is a favorite target of Harden’s on pick-and-roll plays and lobs to the basket, to the tune of a .634 field goal percentage.
A lot of these plays are made in the half court when the defense is set and trying to anticipate what Harden will do. “Yeah, it’s good,” Harden said. “The advance passes, and we get into our offense and try and score as quick as possible, not just any shot but the best shot, and from there use our basketball instincts.”
When Harden isn’t on the floor, Patrick Beverley or Eric Gordon pushes the pace a little quicker. The Rockets have a strong bench; Gordon is second in the league in bench scoring. In Wednesday’s victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, Beverley was just three rebounds shy of a triple-double. The Rockets had a season-high 35 assists.
So while offensive pace can be read in different ways, the Rockets basically up the pace in the half court. That’s the only real pace that matters.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Harden said of D’Antoni’s offense.
“Now it’s free-flowing. (D’Antoni) doesn’t try to control anything; if he has a play, he’ll throw it at me, and if I have something better I’ll just tell him I got something better and he’s cool with it. That kind of relationship goes a long way.”