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Where The Magic Happens

How the Rockets create space and force opposing defenses to pick the poison of their choice

HOUSTON - There might not be a more utilized word – or more sought after commodity – in professional team sports today than “space” as it pertains to offensive tactics and strategy. From the spread offences that have revolutionized American football to Barcelona’s (and now Arsenal’s! – sorry, couldn’t resist inserting some Gunner pride) tiki taka on the other side of the pond, smart clubs have recognized and wholeheartedly embraced the need to create as much room as possible to better enable their best players to go to work and weave their magic on the playing surface of their choice.

Basketball, of course, is no different. Most recently the two-time defending champs down in Miami have unleashed fire and brimstone upon the NBA with their pace-and-space attack that revolves around LeBron James’ multifarious abilities and amorphous positional versatility which allow the Heat to wreak havoc on opposing defenses by surrounding him with a cadre of shooters and All-Star playmakers. Even the best players in the world can see their effectiveness blunted when defenses are able to load up and focus all their collective energy on slowing that threat (for reference, just recall the Grizzlies’ second-round takedown of Oklahoma City last year when the Thunder were forced to play without the injured Russell Westbrook). But force opponents into a regular pick-your-poison diet and eventually the toxins will kick-in leading to excessive weeping, withering and gnashing of teeth.

Miami’s unique firepower has left an abundance of scorched earth in its wake each of the past two summers. The Rockets may well be able to inflict similar damage this season.

While that statement may have seemed a bit bold and brash before training camp began three weeks ago, it should hardly be seen as such now. After all, Houston did lay claim to the sixth-best offense in the league last year and the addition of another year of experience, continuity and, oh yeah, that Dwight Howard guy, only figured to expand the horizons and potential possessed by this team’s offensive attack.

But what impeccably works on the coach’s whiteboard doesn’t always manifest itself in reality. Trial, error and time are necessary to find out what actually works, what must be tweaked and, in some cases, trashed altogether. That experimental stage is what the preseason – and, if we’re being honest, a good chunk of the regular season, too – is often about. But while the Rockets still have plenty to improve upon and massage at this early juncture, the team’s own version of pace-and-space appears right on track and ready for lift-off into the stratosphere of the league’s über elite.

As it does with the Heat, Houston’s explosiveness begins of course with its superstar core. With James Harden and Howard now in tow, the Rockets possess what will likely be the league’s preeminent inside-out combination. The NBA’s General Managers backed up that assertion today within a poll revealing that Harden and Howard were ranked No. 1 at their respective positions by the league’s execs, and ESPN’s #NBArank series suggested much the same by naming Harden and Howard as the fourth- and seventh-best players in the game today, respectively. Their playing styles promised to mesh exquisitely prior to their joining forces and nothing we’ve seen in the short time since has provided any reason to believe the contrary.

Put those two All-Stars together and you could likely pull three random dudes from your local YMCA and still experience plenty of on-court success. But surround them with the right complementary pieces – say, some knockdown shooters and secondary playmakers – and now you’ve got the ingredients to truly dominate and test the limits of what this high octane machine is capable of. Spread the floor. Bombard the opponent with one defensive dilemma after another. Create space. Then sit back and watch that baby hum.

It can begin as simply as something like this:

What this screenshot captures is like the hoops version of choosing between hemlock, ricin or iocane powder – all roads lead to defensive death. With the ball in Harden’s hands, Howard sliding up to set a screen and shooters spreading the floor, Houston has space and high percentage options galore. If Monta Ellis chooses to go under the pick, it gives Harden plenty of room to let fly from beyond the arc where he went 4-of-5 last night and is hitting 55 percent from the preseason. If the Mavs opt to switch, then Samuel Dalembert is stuck defending Harden out on the perimeter with zero in the way of rim protection behind him. Good luck with that. Meanwhile. Dirk Nowitzki can’t afford to leave Francisco Garcia (57 percent from 3 this preseason) alone in the corner, Jose Calderon has to help at the nail (the term for the center of the free throw line) while respecting Patrick Beverley’s 3-point prowess, and Vince Carter is stuck in no man’s land having to simultaneously offer some resistance to a rolling Howard while Chandler Parsons, who hit 50 percent of his corner 3s a year ago, lurks dangerously in the weakside corner. Dallas doesn’t stand a chance.

Here’s a look at what ultimately ensued:

No, this year’s Mavericks aren’t going to be the 2008 Celtics. The league’s legit defensive stalwarts such as Chicago, Memphis and Indiana will certainly offer more resistance than what we just saw Dallas do in that example. What this exercise reinforces and reveals, however, is the potency and promise the Rockets’ offense has put on display throughout the preseason.

According to Synergy Sports, Houston ranks No. 2 in offensive efficiency this month, coming in at No. 1 overall in half-court offense and second in transition scoring. What’s more, the sheer variety of the Rockets’ attacking options provides them with an enviable arsenal that should help them through the slog of the season when the inevitable injuries, shooting slumps and other assorted issues attempt to take hold. Throughout the month of October, Houston has trotted out various lineups featuring frontcourt combos like Parsons-Casspi and Parsons-Garcia while giving ample time to a backcourt pairing of Lin-Beverley as well. All have enjoyed success. More traditional lineups that saw Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones manning the power forward spot worked early on, too. And of course the Rockets are still in the earliest stages of seeing what sort of magic a supersized situational lineup of Howard and Omer Asik might be able to conjure. This team came into camp eager to access its ability to play virtually any style and thus far the results have been enormously and nearly unanimously positive.

All of the biggest and most meaningful tests still remain far ahead on the horizon, of course. Film will be devoured, opponents will adjust and the Rockets aren’t going to knock down 41 percent of their 3-point attempts for the season. But given the principals involved (and the eternal sporting caveat of their good health), all that open space isn’t going anywhere. The depth and versatility of Houston’s supporting cast has helped the Harden-Howard combo tap into some of its immense potential and, as mentioned yesterday, the resulting effect has been akin to the difference in Adrian Peterson facing an eight-man front every snap versus him having the opportunity to consistently go to work against a defense that has to be just as wary of playing the pass.

For decades, one of sport’s most reliable axioms has been that speed kills. But these days it should be just as obvious that space does, too.