James Harden had just finished one of the least efficient performances of his historic season when he was asked how much the Milwaukee Bucks’ unique defensive scheme had to do with his off night.
“None,” Harden said, scoffing at the suggestion that the Bucks might have created a blueprint for defending the NBA’s most unstoppable offensive weapon.
Harden explained that shots simply didn’t go in, refusing to give credit to the NBA’s top-ranked defense for holding him to 9-of-26 shooting from the floor during the Houston Rockets’ 108-94 loss on the road.
The Bucks did an excellent job of executing their game plan, with point guard Eric Bledsoe going to great extremes to force Harden to drive right, straddling his left hip instead of playing in front of him. Bledsoe pressured Harden into traffic with 7-foot rim protector Brook Lopez waiting in the lane, Giannis Antetokounmpo swooping in with his pterodactyl wings as a help defender and hyperathletic Bledsoe chasing in pursuit, blocking a couple of layup attempts from behind.
“One doesn’t work without the other,” Bledsoe said of the luxury of funneling Harden into elite help defenders. “I was forcing him off the 3-point line and trying not to [let Harden] do that step-back. Fortunately, it worked for us.”
Could that work for Rockets opponents in the playoffs? Coaches and scouts around the league have their doubts.
“You can’t guard him. You can’t,” an advance scout for an East team said. “You just hope that he misses shots and then the other guys will not beat you. He’s going to do what he’s going to do. You just hope he misses shots.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni strongly agrees with that, as does Harden, who made a case to repeat as MVP by averaging 36.1 points and 7.5 assists per game in what was arguably the best individual offensive season in NBA history. Of the top seasons in which a player has averaged at least 35 points, Harden had by far the highest true shooting percentage (.616) and most assists (7.5 per game).
“He’s seen every kind of defense,” D’Antoni said. “He might have a bad game. But to think that a team is going to stop him … it’s not going to happen.”
The Rockets contend that that’s what happened in Milwaukee, and some statistics support that theory. It was his fifth-worst game this season in terms of the difference in his shooting percentage and quality of shot, based on Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Quantity. And Rockets role players PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon didn’t make the Bucks pay for letting them get good looks, combining to go 1-of-16 from the floor and 1-of-13 from 3-point range.
Nevertheless, the Bucks certainly succeeded in influencing Harden’s shot diet. With Bledsoe breathing into his left ear, Harden got off only a few of his signature step backs among his nine 3-point attempts, which was well below his NBA-record average of 13.2 per game. The Bucks kept their hands high and the whistles quiet, resulting in only five free throws for Harden, less than half of his league-high average. And Harden took eight 2-pointers outside the restricted area, the poison every opponent would pick.
“You try to defend the 3-point line with him as best you possibly can, try to get him inside the elbow to the dots,” a West head coach said. But Harden is lethal even taking the shots defenses attempt to dictate, becoming drastically more comfortable with his floater this season. According to NBA.com statistics, Harden has hit 51.6 percent of 225 attempted floaters this season, up from 50.5 percent on only 91 tries in 2017-18.
If there’s a West foe up to the challenge, it’d be the Rockets’ first-round draw. The Utah Jazz, anchored by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, ranked second in the league in defense, trailing the Bucks by three-tenths of a point per 100 possessions. In terms of team points per possession, two of Harden’s five least-efficient nights this season came in losses to Utah, including when he scored a season-low 15 points. (Rockets fans might note that both of those duds came during Houston’s horrible start to the season.)
But, as far as the notion of the Bucks providing a schematic blueprint for guarding Harden or the Jazz figuring out a surefire solution, the people who prepare to try to contain him don’t buy it, either.
“I don’t think there’s any one way you can play him,” a West assistant coach said. “What you’ve got to do is mix it up. You can’t give him a steady dose of one thing. Is your defense going to be good at all the different looks? You don’t have a lot of time to practice all the different gimmicks, but you do have more time in the playoffs to zero in on that stuff. He’s got all the tricks, so you’ve got to have everything in your toolbox ready to throw at him.”
As a West scout said, “I haven’t seen someone that unstoppable in a while. It’s the way that he navigates in the lane, the way he handles the ball, he shot the ball from almost half court sometimes. He does so many things offensively that you just cannot prepare for.”
The book has always been to try to make the southpaw Harden go right, as the Bucks did. There has been a drastic difference on his effectiveness on drives by direction during the playoffs in his Rockets tenure. According to Second Spectrum, the Rockets have generated 1.18 points per playoff possession off Harden drives to his left, including plays where he passes to a shooter, compared to only 0.95 on drives to the right.
But, like the floater, Harden has dramatically improved that aspect of his game. The Rockets generated 1.17 points on Harden lefty drives and 1.12 points on his righty drives this season, both elite numbers.
“The theory is to just drive him right and make him live inside the 3-point line,” a West assistant coach said. “It’s easier said than done. You can force him right and in a couple of steps he’ll get back to his left hand. The guy is the MVP for a reason.”
Harden is such a consistently dominant weapon that some believe opponents are best served focusing their defensive plans on trying to prevent the Rockets’ supporting cast from getting in a rhythm. In other words, do your best to make Harden take difficult shots without bending your defensive principles to deal with him.
“That’s where the question starts: Do you limit him or do you stop everybody else?” a West head coach said. “When you play against him, can he get enough points to single-handedly beat you? I think that’s where the discussion starts, because when you start to scheme for him and you start to send extra bodies at him, then he still does what he does. He’s going to score, but when you get in rotations and you throw extra bodies at him, it creates open triggers for everybody else.
“I think that’s what beats you, when he has his 40 points plus 12 or 13 assists that he’s creating for other people, and they’re 3s and dunks. Do you just let him do his thing and hopefully shut down and limit the other guys and see if he can single-handedly beat you?”