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The Rockets Love Launching 3s From Way Past The Line

DALLAS — The Houston Rockets, who at the moment seem to be the only team worthy of challenging the defending champion Warriors, just might be the NBA’s most unapologetic club.

The team set fire to the record books last season by launching more than 40 3-point attempts per night, which shattered their own record from 2014-15 and was over six 3s a night more than the team with the second-most attempts. Yet entering this campaign, reigning Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni still wanted more, saying that Houston could realistically take 50 per game. Houston may not be quite that extreme so far, but they are on pace to become the first team in history to shoot more 3s than 2s — which is mind-boggling in its own right.

Yet for all the attention paid to how many 3s the Rockets are taking, there’s been less attention paid to where, exactly, the club is hoisting them from, and the positive difference it’s making for their offense even if the shots don’t all go in.

Going into their nationally televised matchup Friday night with the Pelicans, the Rockets were spotting up from a different zip code far more than any other team. Houston’s taken a whopping 178 three-point attempts from the 28-to-35 foot range, according to data from James Jackson of ESPN Stats & Information Group. For context, the teams right behind Houston on this list, Portland and Indiana, have taken just 108 and 107 attempts from this distance which is at least 4 feet behind the line. But after those three teams, no one else has even managed to crack 100 so far. This number is unusually high for the 3-point-obsessed Rockets, too: They’ve already taken more 3s from that range in 46 games this season than they took during last year’s entire 82-game slate.

The Rockets shoot from (way, way) downtown

NBA teams with the most 3-point attempts from 28-35 feet, 2017-18

Team 3-point Attempts
Houston Rockets 178
Portland Trail Blazers 108
Indiana Pacers 107
Boston Celtics 93
Cleveland Cavaliers 93
Golden State Warriors 84
Charlotte Hornets 78
Detroit Pistons 77
Miami Heat 70
Brooklyn Nets 70

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Of course, it’s not like Houston — which entered Friday as the No. 2 seed, at 34-12 — is regularly canning these looks. The Rockets are connecting on just under 30 percent of their shots from that deep,1 a far cry from the 36 percent league-average mark from 3-point range in general.

Still, there are several reasons that those shots help the team even if they don’t go in, and just about all of those reasons stem from the spacing these long shots create. Chris Paul and James Harden certainly benefit from the extra room, and they already rank among the NBA’s best playmakers, even without the help.

Watch this pick-and-roll play against Utah, where Paul comes down and finds big man Clint Capela for a dunk. Jazz swingman Joe Johnson was prepared to help at the rim, but began scrambling back toward sharpshooter Ryan Anderson, even though he was standing nearly 30 feet from the basket. Johnson’s recognition that Anderson can make shots from that distance was enough to send him rushing away from Capela.

Capela, who’s in the middle of his best season and is currently leading the NBA in field-goal percentage, has been perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the additional spacing. Harden and Paul, two of the best no-look passers, have had a field day throwing him lobs (He’s second in the league in dunks). His average shot attempt this season is coming fewer than 2 feet from the basket.

“Having all that extra space definitely enhances Clint’s game,” said D’Antoni, who told me he gave a handful of players (namely Anderson, Harden and Eric Gordon) the green light last season to experiment with the longer 3-point tries.

The importance of Capela’s vertical floor-spacing role within the offense can’t be overstated. For starters, the Rockets run an NBA-high 62 direct2 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats, meaning he’s involved in dozens of scoring opportunities each game, with both Paul and Harden. One thing worth noting about this trio: Paul, Harden and Capela have led the Rockets to a 19-0 mark this season when all three suit up and play. The team is just 15-12 when one or more of them doesn’t play.

When I asked Paul what it’s like playing in an offense with so much space, he explained that he’s still learning to adjust to how open some of his teammates are. “My friends joke with me and tell me I’m a new player now, but it’s a cool way to play,” he told me. “Nobody argues about shots or anything. When you see us get frustrated, a lot of the time it’s because we’re not defending. The offense is free-flowing, and guys just let (long shots) go.”

Giving players like Paul and Harden more space to work with is almost cruel. A weak-side defender’s inability to help leaves primary stoppers on an island, and the star point guards are happy to take their chances with those matchups. The result so far: The Rockets go 1-on-1 more than any other NBA team and are the league’s most efficient isolation team by a wide margin.3 Similarly, Harden and Paul rank No. 1 and No. 2 in isolation efficiency among those who go 1-on-1 at least three times per contest. (Harden is somehow scoring nearly 53 percent of the time in iso scenarios to this point.)

But the isolation plays are just one way the extra spacing has helped Harden this year, after he showed himself to be perhaps the NBA’s best passer last season. The extra room has also enabled him to toy with defenses at times. In this first video of the Rockets playing against Sacramento, Harden draws three defenders at once — two of whom run into each other — and feeds the ball to Capela after the Kings fail to account for him in the paint. Less than two minutes later, knowing that the defense won’t make the same mistake and leave Capela open again, Harden makes it look as if he’s going to throw the ball back to his center but instead swings the ball to a wide-open Anderson, who’s waiting 5 feet above the top of the key.

In just those two plays, the Rockets illustrate how easily they can break a defense. If you pay too much attention to Harden or Paul, they’ll simply go over the top to Capela. Pay too much attention to someone cutting through the paint? There’s a good chance it’s going to cost you 3 points, given the caliber of shooters they have lining the perimeter. And it goes without saying that if you neglect Harden or Paul driving into the paint, Houston will either score or draw a shooting foul, which the Rockets do better than anyone.

All of this explains why Anderson likes to stand so far off the line: It forces the defender to make a choice: Am I going to come out and guard him up to 30 feet from the basket and be too far away to provide help on James or Paul, or do I want to be in position to guard against the drive and risk letting Anderson or Gordon get an open 3 from basically another county?

“I kind of like shooting it from that deep. Most times, no one wants to come out that far, so it feels kind of like a free throw, where there’s no pressure,” said Anderson, who was prodded by D’Antoni to start taking that shot based on what his coach had seen in shootarounds and practices. “And if they do hug up on me, like Harrison Barnes was doing tonight, all it does is leave room for James and Chris.” (Harden finished Wednesday’s game with 25 points, 13 assists and one turnover.)

You might think this sort of dilemma might send a defense scrambling, but opposing teams sometimes treat the court like a minefield: Often they’re a bit too confused about who they should shade toward and wind up unwilling to make a definitive step in any direction. Houston’s opponents move at the league’s seventh-slowest rate on defense, according to Second Spectrum. On the flip side, the Rockets know exactly what they want to do when they have an open look, regardless of how far away they may be from the basket.

“They’re really comfortable out there,” D’Antoni said of his players, who get more wide-open 3s per game than any other team. “If it’s just as comfortable [as a shorter 3], why not shoot it? I’m willing to live with that.”

Footnotes

  1. When the Rockets take 3s from above the break, their average shot distance is 25.8 feet from the basket, the second-farthest in the NBA.

  2. Meaning an action that led directly to a shot, foul or change of possession.

  3. Their current scoring rate is the highest on record in the Synergy Sports database, which goes back 14 years.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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