James Harden has been the NBA’s most unstoppable scorer this season. Riding a streak of 32 straight 30-point games coming in Monday’s matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Harden was neck-and-neck with Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in the MVP race, and what he’s doing to carry an oft-injured Rockets team to contention has been nothing short of incredible.
We’ve seen teams try all sorts of defensive tricks against Harden, from deep drops to bait him into floaters to hard doubles to remove the ball from his hands altogether to the Bucks’ extreme drive-first strategy that was designed to take away his lethal step-back jumper. Atlanta cycled through a few different strategies against Harden in their lone visit to Houston this season, eventually settling on a hard double as soon as he crossed into the attacking half and dealing with the rest of the Rockets by zoning up behind the two doubling defenders at the top. As a whole, the results were relatively positive – they gave up just nine points on the ten possessions in which they went out of their way to double Harden – even if the Hawks were unable to defend the rest of the time on their way to a very poor overall defensive performance.
It began late in the second quarter, when John Collins sprung a surprise double at Harden:
As Harden crossed the halfcourt line, Kenneth Faried stepped up to set a ball screen for him, but rather than wait for Harden to use it, Collins jumped out at him, trapping him on the Rockets logo at midcourt. Houston was prepared for it, as Faried immediately made himself available as a pressure release option, but the newly-acquired big man isn’t as adept as the other Rockets in handling the 4-on-3 situation that followed.
Players like Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker are used to working on the short roll due to their experience playing with Harden over the last few years, but Faried was just signed in Houston a month ago and hasn’t had as many reps in that situation. He drove at the waiting Dewayne Dedmon and tried to throw a lob to Capela, but Dedmon read it all the way and broke up the pass for a turnover.
In general, the Hawks had the most success with the aggressive doubling scheme when both Faried and Capela were on the floor together. They often used Faried’s defender to double Harden, again wishing to funnel the ball to him in the hopes that they could take advantage of his lack of ball handling and decision making ability in these spots to buy time and recover.
In the above clip, Collins didn’t even wait until Harden crossed the midline to get into the midline. The ball pinged around until it found Eric Gordon for an open 3 – the biggest problem with how the Hawks defended this particular play is that the three non-doubling defenders didn’t wall off the easiest options for Harden. Gordon was immediately open as soon as Collins came up for the double.
If Vince Carter were higher up the floor to deny Gordon the ball, it would fall to someone else, preferably Faried from the Hawks perspective, to come toward Harden to get the ball. Whether this is on Carter or Collins for going too early is unknown to those of us outside the coaching staff, but this play highlights the danger of doubling so early and so far away from the rim – it leaves a lot of ground to cover and a lot of time on the shot clock with which Houston can work.
On this play, Harden and Gerald Green worked a high ball screen action to get Omari Spellman switched onto Harden. As he went into his isolation dance against Spellman, Atlanta brought Carter over to double Harden, pushing him back toward the halfcourt line.
The Rockets were playing just one of their big men in this instance, but Alex Len does a good job stepping up toward Gordon to ensure that the sharpshooter is defended. However, Gordon follows Harden away from the rim and gives him the outlet he needs, at which point the Hawks defense is entirely out of position and unable to prevent the pass down to Faried, who was fouled.
Later on in the game, the Hawks decided to go back to the doubling strategy, but this time they were funneling the ball toward Capela, who is a very capable passer and decision maker in 4-on-3 situations. In the above clip, Kevin Huerter flashes toward Harden to force the ball out of his hands, but Capela is right there to take the ball and turn toward the rim, as Dedmon had to drop off slightly in his duties in the zone scheme behind the double-team.
Capela takes one hard dribble and finds the open man, Tucker, who swings the ball into a wide-open corner 3 for Chris Paul.
As crunch time arrived, Harden was willing to take on the double team, reading the doubling defender and driving away from him before he arrived. As Dedmon splits off from his mark to double Harden at the top, the Rockets’ superstar reads Dedmon’s approach angle and drives the opposite direction, getting into the paint for a floater. The Hawks actually do a pretty good job rotating defensively to contend with Harden’s drive – Trae Young rotates from the corner into Harden’s driving path and Huerter drops down from the wing to the corner to deter the easy pass to Tucker, but Young is too small to affect Harden as he rises for the running finish.
Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce clearly had a plan for Harden’s isolation-heavy game and his players did their best to get the ball out of his hands. For the most part, it worked, though they weren’t able to implement it as often as one might have expected going into the game. Houston did a good job pivoting to other aspects of their offense, running Harden off handoffs or letting Paul run the show for a time to combat the Hawks’ double-teams.
While they were strong rotating and defending as a unit in these double-team situations, the Hawks were pretty dismal throughout the rest of the game, allowing a massive 122.6 defensive rating on all other possessions in the game in which Harden was on the floor but they didn’t double him. The bench fared no better, relenting 34 points on 26 possessions (130.8 defensive rating) without Harden on the floor at all.
Still, the rest of the league may be able to learn from what Atlanta tried to accomplish against the Rockets on Monday night, especially as we get closer to the postseason and playoff opponents look for every little edge and wrinkle they can throw at one of the league’s best offensive players.