The Wolves covered each pick-and-roll the same way: Alexey Shved sends Harden right, away from the screen and his strong hand. But Shved doesn’t really stick with Harden after Harden refuses the screen, in effect leaving him one-on-one with Kevin Love. Because Shved doesn’t contain the ball, Love has no angle to cut Harden off and twice lets him race past him to his strong left hand for the finish.
I originally wrote that Shved was going over Omer Asik’s screens, but, as Beckley points out, this is incorrect. Instead, the Wolves were “jamming” the action, attempting to prevent Harden from using Asik’s screen, in the process pushing him away from the middle of the floor and toward his off hand.
Before I go on, look at the way that the 2011 Celtics execute this technique. You’ll see that, after jamming the screen, the man guarding the ball stays glued to the hip of the ballhandler, which limits his (the ballhandler’s) driving angles and pushes him into the lap of the sinking big man. When the Celtics execute this really well, as they do in the second instance, with Paul Pierce guarding Danny Granger, they effectively trap the ballhandler down low.
But now look at what happens to Shved. Despite attempting to push Harden away from Asik, he still gets hung up by the screen. So instead of Shved sticking to Harden’s hip and funneling him into the help, Harden is effectively isolated on Kevin Love in the paint, with plenty of space at his disposal. In other words, Love is screwed. There are elite defensive big men who can handle this situation (I’m thinking of Kevin Garnett or Dwight Howard at their best), but, needless to say, Love is not among them. Check the vid (both these clips, by the way, come via Hoopspeak):
Love was not at his best defensively on Wednesday, but there is essentially no way, even on his best day, that he could ever handle Harden one-on-one in space. Now, this raises a set of questions that Beckley partially addresses: After being burned twice on this play, why not switch things up–perhaps by forcing Harden to give up the ball by trapping him off the screen, or by switching Love and Kirilenko to allow AK to contain Harden’s penetration?
Well, Adelman clearly believed that both of these options compromised his defense even more than it already was. Trapping Harden opens up the distinct possibility of a wide open jumper by either Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons or Carlos Delfino. As for switching Love and AK: I imagine that, had Adelman put Love on Delfino rather than Asik, the Rockets would simply have run an identical set, except with Delfino rather than Asik setting the screen. This would have created the additional problem of accounting for Delfino on the perimeter as well as the driving Harden. No good options left here besides executing the defense properly. Unfortunately, the Wolves weren’t up to the task.