The Rockets were determined to make Dirk Nowitzki guard and continually put him in pick and roll situations last night. Multiple times, it was initiated by James Harden at the top of the key with Josh Smith setting the screen while Nowitzki attempted to defend. It was just as effective in Game 2 as it was in Game 1.
In the second half with Harden on the bench, the Rockets turned to Smith to run the offense. Unconventional? Yes. Stoppable? No. The Rockets kept Nowitzki busy trying to contain the pick and rolls and Smith made the Mavericks pay.
4/5 Pick and Roll
Not only did the Rockets attack Nowitzki as the secondary defender in the pick and roll, they attacked him as the primary defender as well. With Nowitzki guarding Smith (I use that term loosely), Smith would initiate the action and run a 4/5 pick and roll with Dwight Howard. Nowitzki was unable to offer any sort of defensive presence on the pick and rolls and it led to disaster for the Mavs.
Time and again Smith and Howard worked the pick and roll to perfection with the Mavericks leaving the paint wide open. With Dallas' guards being too small to help on Howard and no added rim protection, there was little the Mavericks could offer in resistance.
Howard was able to dive to the rim and get an easy dunk. The three Mavs defenders not in the pick and roll are hugging shooters and in no position to help on Howard in the paint. Result: Dunk. One option for Rick Carlisle may be to put Al-Farouq Aminu on Smith who offers more in the way of athleticism and quickness.
Dribble Hand off/Rub Screen
The Rockets unleashed this wrinkle late and it led to the rim being damn near ripped off.
Instead of the generic pick and roll, Smith and Harden run a dribble hand off, Smith rubs Harden's man on the screen and guess who is guarding the ball again? Yup, Dirk.
Dirk actually does a good job of forcing Harden to get rid of the ball, but that is where it all falls apart. J.J. Barea is just standing around and Tyson Chandler is about to be stuck in two-on-one.
Harden delivers the ball to an open Smith on the roll, and when Chandler rotates over to help... another lob from Smith to Howard. The Mavs had a back line of defense of Barea and Raymond Felton. Not exactly rim protectors. '
Smith had 9 assists, six of them went to Howard and you can see why. Once the Rockets lured Chandler away from Dwight, the lobs were endless.
30 seconds later the Rockets ran the play again with similar success (re: another dunk).
This time Chandler is hesitant to rotate to Smith in fear of the lob and that leaves an open lane for Smith to drive to the rim.
Smith might not be the best three-point shooter but he sure can finish uncontested at the rim. After getting burned on lobs from Smith to Howard, Chandler essentially concedes the dunk to J-Smoove. I almost feel bad for Chandler, no matter what he does there ends up being a Rocket dunking by him.
Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the NBA and a master at game-to-game adjustments. Against this Rockets team, though, there just don't seem to be any options left for him. Especially with Chandler Parsons out for the series.
Barea and Felton both played well in Game 2, but they offer no help on the defensive end and didn't provide enough offense to make up for it. After benching Rajon Rondo for the second half, it doesn't look like "Playoff Rondo" is a thing anymore. The Rockets may have found the Mavericks kryptonite by way of picking and rolling them to death.
It will be interesting to see what the Rockets do against a better defensive team like the Clippers or Spurs. Both of those teams have excellent athletes (Griffin and Leonard) to throw at the Rockets and legitimate rim protectors (Jordan and Duncan), something the Mavs don't. Kevin McHale found something that worked and when it got stale he spiced it up. Hopefully his cupboard is full of new spices.