The crowning moment of the Houston Rockets’ historic third quarter came when Eric Gordon’s three-pointer pushed them to the half-century mark as the buzzer sounded. Houston had started the half with a one-point advantage and ended it up 31. It was the second-ever 50-point quarter in NBA postseason history, and the first in 56 years.
Those 12 minutes will draw the attention, but it’s the 15-minute halftime before that allowed this to happen. Houston had spent nearly three-and-a-half games struggling offensively against the Minnesota Timberwolves; and Game 4 on Monday had once again been played to a near draw through the first two quarters. As much as the Rockets tried to say they were just missing open shots, we knew it wasn’t just that. Houston, who finished one-tenth of a point below Golden State for the best offense in the league, didn’t quite look like that team.
At least, not until halftime.
“It’s all adjustments,” head coach Mike D’Antoni said afterwards.
It’s not like Houston overhauled its entire system, and sure, all basketball games ultimately come down to players making plays. But James Harden said the team was looking for the “switch,” and D’Antoni had bemoaned the team’s lack of rhythm. His halftime tweaks finally got through to the Houston lineups, and the Rockets were finally recognizable again.
Here’s what they did.
1. JAMES HARDEN SET UP HIS SHOT BY DRIVING
Harden’s 22-point third quarter set a Rockets’ postseason record and helped make up for his subpar first half. It came on 7-of-10 shooting from the field, 3-of-4 shooting from deep, and five free-throw attempts, all made.
The marked improvement from the first half was Harden’s assertiveness, though. Harden opened the game missing his first seven shots partly because Minnesota’s aggressive defense was dictating his shot selection.
Harden attacking earlier helps diversify his offense. When he drives, there are so many endings that opposing defenses must account for. He can throw the lob or kick it out. He can release a soft floater or finish hard at the rim. In the first half, Harden turned down a short two-point shot and the possession never recovered. He should mix in two-point jumpers every now and then to keep teams honest.
Notice how Harden scored his first two buckets in the third.
James Harden COOKED in the 3rd quarter for 22 of his 36 points. pic.twitter.com/sxeHwGoZr8— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 24, 2018
When Harden started bombing again from deep as the quarter progressed, it was on his own terms, not the late shot clock’s or stifling defense’s.
2. HOUSTON FINALLY MOVED
This happened in two ways: with tempo and with actions. Houston played deceptively slow this season, finishing with the seventh-slowest pace in the regular season after the all-star break. D’Antoni is most famously known for his quick-shooting offense, but the Rockets totally embraced an isolation mismatch approach that consistently took the shot clock down under five while Harden or Paul worked a lesser defender.
Minnesota knew those possessions were coming, and they sat all over them, especially when Harden ended up with Andrew Wiggins or Taj Gibson on him. The Timberwolves can live with those switches, and Harden initially struggled to adjust. And then in the third quarter, he combined with Paul for 37 points, the most that the duo has scored in any quarter all season.
Here are some of the ways they used movement to ignite the offense:
They did it with traditional big men
The Timberwolves mostly switched their pick-and-roll coverages, but they made an exception for Clint Capela or Nene. In those instances, Minnesota kept Karl-Anthony Towns dropped all the way back into the paint, refusing to come out for any reason. Meanwhile, the guard’s responsibility was to quickly duck under.
That’s much easier said than done, and both Houston ball handlers — Harden and Paul — hit triples in the third quarter because they got their man stuck on the screen. Just like this.
They did it with staggered screens
Another easy win was staggering two players and simply allowing Harden or Paul to run around it. Do it a few times, and Minnesota simply wasn’t disciplined enough to track all the moving parts. Paul hit another three this way.
They did it with off-ball action
Harden does so much for this team, but Houston pointedly ran plays like this so it wasn’t always him creating for himself. Less than 10 percent of Harden’s two-pointers were assisted this season, but it’s nice to get a freebie like this once in a while.
They did it in transition
This is hardly even a strategy, but Houston made several efforts to run in that third quarter. It’s an easy remedy when this team’s offense goes into a rut.
It wasn’t groundbreaking offensive schematics, but it was plenty enough to thoroughly embarrass Minnesota.
Are the Rockets back now?
While the third quarter was a particularly aggressive regression to the mean, this type of offensive explosion seemed likely to happen. Houston entered Game 4 averaging about 17 open threes per game, and they had been hitting less than 30 percent of them. Eventually, good looks will drop for a team with amazing shooting.
Houston had played bland basketball against Minnesota and still held a 2-1 lead. You can imagine they’ll likely close out the series in Game 5, given the way the first two games at home went. No one’s asking for another 50-point quarter, but an offense that more closely resembles that third quarter one than the first half rendition would be a welcomed sign. We know the Rockets can do that, and so do they.