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The Houston Rockets passed their way to victory over the Orlando Magic

N.B. Lindberg
Houston Rockets v Orlando Magic
Houston Rockets v Orlando Magic / Douglas P. DeFelice/GettyImages
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The Houston Rockets’ 134-127 victory over the Orlando Magic ended their six game losing streak as they moved to 2-9 on the season. The performance saw the Rockets set season highs in points, 3-point field goals, and assists. The driving force behind the team-wide offensive outburst was an increased volume in passing. 

Through the first 10 games of the season, the Rockets had been one of the most pass averse teams in the league, averaging 269.3 passes per game. However, against the Magic, they saw that number jump to 292. While an increase of 22.7 passes might not seem all that noticeable, the Rockets’ passing jumped off the screen. 

The Rockets get Extra with their passing

The extra pass is one of the most valuable passes in basketball, but it’s not as simple as just an extra pass. A true extra pass breaks a defense by foregoing a good shot in pursuit of a great one, and for much of the season, the Rockets had been passing up the extra pass. 

This clip is a great example of the power of an extra pass. Alperen Sengun drives and collapses the defense before kicking it out to Eric Gordon in the corner for an open three. Gordon has a good shot, but he quickly swings it to Jabari Smith Jr. to take advantage of Bol Bol not rotating on defense. Smith has the time to gather himself and nails the three. 

However, there is an extra benefit to making the extra pass. If Bol Bol had been quicker on his rotation, a simple extra pass from Smith would have led to another wide open shot. The best way to break a defense is to get it in rotation, and there is nothing better at forcing that than the extra pass.

The Rockets’ improvement in passing the ball with intent showed up in the stats as well. They registered eight secondary assists against the Magic when they had only been averaging two in the ten games prior. It’s frankly insane that 28.6% of all the Rockets’ secondary assists came in one game which accounts for 9.1% of their season.  

Can the Rockets keep it up? 

The primary driver of the Rockets’ increased passing looks to be their newfound strategy of having more of the offense run through Alperen Sengun. Sengun is the Rockets’ best passer, and because of his ability to post up effectively, he is able to generate higher-quality passing opportunities. Passes from the paint are more valuable than passes above the break because they are usually accompanied by a collapsed defense, as opposed to a set one. 

The Rockets shouldn’t go away from using Sengun as their creative hub on the low block or in the high post, but they also won’t always be playing the Orlando Magic and their two-three zone. The increase in passing has also coincided with an increase in turnovers, but that shouldn’t scare the Rockets off. 

The Golden State Warriors built the greatest dynasty of the 21st century through a high pass, high turnover offense. The offensive rewards for passing are clear, but it also comes with the tradeoff of more turnovers. Seeing as the Rockets don’t have a player capable of dominating the ball in the pick-and-roll or isolations, a great way to minimize passes and turnovers, the tradeoff for improved offensive efficiency probably lies in riding with a few extra turnovers at the cost of improved passing. 

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The Rockets’ next game will present an excellent challenge to see just how high a more pass-happy offense can take them. The Toronto Raptors' 15.6% defensive turnover percentage is the best in the league. If the Rockets’ offensive can hold its own against the Raptors, then it should give the coaching staff all the proof it needs to go the extra mile for the extra pass. 

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