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Iso-Ball was on the way out of the NBA, until the Rockets reinvented it

As the rest of the league slowly phased out this seemingly outdated style, the Rockets have embraced it in their own unique way.

To understand what makes the Rockets so dominant, consider this sequence from the third quarter of a recent game against the Bucks.

It ended successfully with a Sterling Brown corner triple, but consider the sequence of events that took place before that result.

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo dribbled the ball up the floor and passed it to Jabari Parker at the top of the three-point line.
  • Parker swung it across to Jason Terry and followed his pass to set a screen.
  • For a moment, Terry had a straight line into the middle of the paint, which would’ve broken Houston’s defense down. But Chris Paul switched onto the bigger Parker, and P.J. Tucker picked up Terry, vaporizing that opening.
  • With eight inches and 75 pounds on Paul, Parker set up shop at the rim. Paul fronted him but Antetokounmpo, doing his best quarterback impression, tossed a crosscourt lob pass where only Parker could catch it. Eric Gordon double-teamed from the baseline and the rest of the Rockets zoned up.
  • Parker skipped a crosscourt pass to Brown in the corner, but Trevor Ariza recovered before he could get off the uncontested shot.
  • Brown swung the ball to Khris Middleton, who drove on Luc Mbah a Moute’s closeout, only to run back into Ariza.
  • Middleton kicked the ball back to Brown in the corner and he hit a three with two seconds left on the shot clock.

If it feels like that dragged on, that’s the point.

Here’s how the Rockets responded.

Same number of points. Very different process.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets have always been trend-setters. Under the leadership of general manager Daryl Morey, Houston led the charge toward modernizing the NBA by emphasizing three-pointers, layups, and running the floor. James Harden, whose instincts were already primed for such a style, turned into one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers once he was traded to Houston by completely cutting the mid-range jumpers out of his diet.

Pace, three-point attempts, and shots at the rim skyrocketed in the intervening years. Most of the league tried to catch up to the Rockets by emphasizing ball movement and introducing intricate sets to open players up in high-leverage areas. Efficiency skyrocketed. The resultant increase in movement, some speculate, might be a cause for the rise serious non-contact injuries plaguing the league. This modern style forces every player on the court to be been responsible for doing so many more things at once than ever before.

The Rockets, once again, have built the NBA’s best offense by zigging where the rest of the league has zagged.

While the rest of the league has moved away from isolation basketball because of its low rate of return, the Rockets have played more isolation possessions than anyone else. In the past 15 games, they’ve played at the slowest pace in the NBA. They’ve gone 14-1, with Harden and Paul making turnstyles of their opponents while the surrounding floor-spacers largely standing around and watching.

There’s a method to the monotony. Harden and Paul generate 1.24 and 1.13 points per possession, respectively when they isolate and score. The Rockets, as a team, score 1.13 points per possession in isolation. How efficient is that? The Clippers, the next-best isolation team in the NBA, garner 1.02 points per play on half the frequency.

While the rest of the league strains to create separation through multiple actions, the Rockets let their stars go to work, creating easy shots primarily through their two generational passers breaking down the defense and finding open shooters through relatively clean angles. As a result, the Rockets run a mistake-free elite offense, turning the ball over on just 13.2 percent of possessions since Nov. 16, when Paul re-entered the lineup after a knee injury.

More importantly, they run an NBA-low 16.1 miles per game, and the difference between them and second-place Minnesota is as large as the difference between second and 13th. The Rockets’ average speed, on both offense and defense, is by far slowest in the league, which you probably wouldn’t expect given their reputation as a high-octane offensive machine. The reality is that Harden, Paul, and Capela — with whom the Rockets are 38-2 — are often running a three-man motion offense within an offense, while a mishmash of interchangeable wings chill and watch.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

This has conspired to make the Rockets an ideal spot for veterans to succeed. Less movement means less wear-and-tear on the body, lending a new air of ruthless efficiency to a team that has defined it in the modern era.

“We got a lot of guys that have been in the league for 10-plus years,” midseason acquisition Joe Johnson told SB Nation. “That’s ideal for me. I think it gives the coaching staff a sense of how to work with us, so to speak, as opposed to having a bunch of young guys, you bring them to practice, you run them, you kill them. We don’t need that.”

The Rockets may not move around a lot, but when they do, they make that movement count. When Tucker sets a screen to free one of his stars, he isn’t merely looking to shoot it if he catches a pass. He operates in space, popping or rolling as the defense dictates. With everyone else standing and spacing the floor, it makes for an easy decision.

“If they’re gonna double Chris or James, they’re gonna hit me in the pocket and we’re gonna play with numbers,” Tucker said. “We’re gonna get either a wide open floater, a dunk, or a wide open three, so it’s just being smart, and reading defenses.”

When either of Harden or Paul are setting up a side pick-and-roll, Houston’s shooters immediately move to the other side of the floor. When they sense a mismatch, they reposition themselves in a manner that gives the defense an impossible choice.

There’s no running for running sake in the Rockets’ offense. The way they space the floor, every screen sets off a chain reaction, and every movement creates leverage. Houston might be the slowest team in the league, but they yield more per movement than any team in the NBA.

Playing five-on-four after the defense forces the ball out of Harden or Paul’s hands, the Rockets’ role players have thrived.

“You don’t have to think, just play,” Mbah a Moute said. “The way we play really simplifies it for you. Space the floor, shoot it, drive it. It’s pretty simple. Those are kinda the main skills in basketball. If you’re skilled enough, you’re gonna succeed in our system.”

NBA: Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This move-when-it-counts philosophy also shines through in Houston’s resurgent defense. The Rockets switch most of their matchups and stand largely in the same place, even as a multitude of actions whirl around them. You’ll never catch either of them running from one side of the court to the other to deal with a cross-match in transition. They tag the closest guy to them, usually putting a halt to immediate layup opportunities, and then deal with mismatches when their opponents settle in to a half-court set. The most you’ll ever see the Rockets scramble on defense is when they double team from the baseline. Always the baseline, never elsewhere.

Whether it’s on offense or defense, the Rockets thrive because everyone is comfortable standing around on a specific area of the court and only moving when absolutely necessary. It’s as though they play a zone on both ends of the court.

They can do this because there is a resounding sameness to the majority of their rotation. Ariza, Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green, Johnson, Harden, and Tucker are all between 6’5 and 6’8, while Paul and Eric Gordon are surprisingly rugged in the post. They can all space the floor, and Capela, who can’t, has the athleticism to demand gravity in the paint on offense and contain most guards on defense.

The Rockets have built best offense and the seventh-best defense in the NBA by goading teams into playing the exact style of basketball that allows them to thrive. Very few teams thrive playing isolation ball these days, and the Rockets are the only ones who have built a system that leverages Paul and Harden’s brilliance so seamlessly into the most efficient shots in the league.

And unlike most great offensive teams, they do it by yielding low turnovers and low mileage. High-risk offenses such as the Warriors’ consider a high turnover rate the collateral damage of running a dynamic offense. But the Rockets, because of their wait-and-react style, don’t need to make that trade-off. That will also make them nearly impossible to scout when it matters. Filled to the brim with two-way veterans in a system perfectly designed for them to remain as healthy as possible, the Rockets look built for the playoffs. They’ve even phased out Ryan Anderson, one of the best shooters in the league, because he’ll be a defensive liability in the postseason.

After gaining notoriety by rigging the numbers, the Rockets have kept the stuff that works and eliminated the stuff that doesn’t. The product: the best record in the league, without any gimmicks to get them there.

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