This unorthodox way to guard James Harden is either genius or a fluke

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James Harden had simply completed one of many least environment friendly performances of his historic season when he was requested how a lot the Milwaukee Bucks’ distinctive defensive scheme needed to do together with his off evening.

“None,” Harden stated, scoffing on the suggestion that the Bucks might need created a blueprint for defending the NBA’s most unstoppable offensive weapon.

Harden defined that pictures merely did not go in, refusing to provide credit score to the NBA’s top-ranked protection for holding him to 9-of-26 capturing from the ground through the Houston Rockets’ 108-94 loss on the street.

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The Bucks did a superb job of executing their sport plan, with level guard Eric Bledsoe going to nice extremes to power Harden to drive proper, straddling his left hip as an alternative of enjoying in entrance of him. Bledsoe pressured Harden into visitors with 7-foot rim protector Brook Lopez ready within the lane, Giannis Antetokounmpo swooping in together with his pterodactyl wings as a assist defender and hyperathletic Bledsoe chasing in pursuit, blocking a few layup makes an attempt from behind.

“One does not work with out the opposite,” Bledsoe stated of the posh of funneling Harden into elite assist defenders. “I used to be forcing him off the Three-point line and attempting to not [let Harden] do this step-back. Happily, it labored for us.”

May that work for Rockets opponents within the playoffs? Coaches and scouts across the league have their doubts.

“You may’t guard him. You may’t,” an advance scout for an East staff stated. “You simply hope that he misses pictures after which the opposite guys is not going to beat you. He will do what he will do. You simply hope he misses pictures.”

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni strongly agrees with that, as does Harden, who made a case to repeat as MVP by averaging 36.1 factors and seven.5 assists per sport in what was arguably the perfect particular person offensive season in NBA historical past. Of the highest seasons through which a participant has averaged at the very least 35 factors, Harden had by far the very best true capturing proportion (.616) and most assists (7.5 per sport).

“He is seen each sort of protection,” D’Antoni stated. “He might need a foul sport. However to suppose staff goes to cease him … it is not going to occur.”

The Rockets contend that that is what occurred in Milwaukee, and a few statistics assist that principle. It was his fifth-worst sport this season when it comes to the distinction in his capturing proportion and high quality of shot, based mostly on Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Amount. And Rockets position gamers PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon did not make the Bucks pay for letting them get attractiveness, combining to go 1-of-16 from the ground and 1-of-13 from Three-point vary.

However, the Bucks actually succeeded in influencing Harden’s shot food plan. With Bledsoe respiration into his left ear, Harden obtained off just a few of his signature step backs amongst his 9 Three-point makes an attempt, which was effectively beneath his NBA-record common of 13.2 per sport. The Bucks stored their palms excessive and the whistles quiet, leading to solely 5 free throws for Harden, lower than half of his league-high common. And Harden took eight 2-pointers exterior the restricted space, the poison each opponent would choose.

“You attempt to defend the Three-point line with him as greatest you presumably can, attempt to get him contained in the elbow to the dots,” a West head coach stated. However Harden is deadly even taking the pictures defenses try to dictate, turning into drastically extra comfy together with his floater this season. In keeping with NBA.com statistics, Harden has hit 51.6 % of 225 tried floaters this season, up from 50.5 % on solely 91 tries in 2017-18.

If there is a West foe as much as the problem, it would be the Rockets’ first-round draw. The Utah Jazz, anchored by reigning Defensive Participant of the 12 months Rudy Gobert, ranked second within the league in protection, trailing the Bucks by three-tenths of a degree per 100 possessions. When it comes to staff factors per possession, two of Harden’s 5 least-efficient nights this season got here in losses to Utah, together with when he scored a season-low 15 factors. (Rockets followers would possibly be aware that each of these duds got here throughout Houston’s horrible begin to the season.)

However, so far as the notion of the Bucks offering a schematic blueprint for guarding Harden or the Jazz determining a surefire answer, the individuals who put together to attempt to include him do not buy it, both.

“I do not suppose there’s any a method you’ll be able to play him,” a West assistant coach stated. “What you have to do is combine it up. You may’t give him a gentle dose of 1 factor. Is your protection going to be good in any respect the completely different appears to be like? You do not have numerous time to follow all of the completely different gimmicks, however you do have extra time within the playoffs to zero in on that stuff. He is obtained all of the methods, so you have to have all the pieces in your toolbox able to throw at him.”

As a West scout stated, “I have never seen somebody that unstoppable shortly. It is the best way that he navigates within the lane, the best way he handles the ball, he shot the ball from virtually half courtroom typically. He does so many issues offensively that you simply simply can’t put together for.”

The guide has at all times been to attempt to make the southpaw Harden go proper, because the Bucks did. There was a drastic distinction on his effectiveness on drives by path through the playoffs in his Rockets tenure. In keeping with Second Spectrum, the Rockets have generated 1.18 factors per playoff possession off Harden drives to his left, together with performs the place he passes to a shooter, in comparison with solely zero.95 on drives to the appropriate.

However, just like the floater, Harden has dramatically improved that side of his sport. The Rockets generated 1.17 factors on Harden lefty drives and 1.12 factors on his righty drives this season, each elite numbers.

“The idea is to simply drive him proper and make him reside contained in the Three-point line,” a West assistant coach stated. “It is simpler stated than performed. You may power him proper and in a few steps he’ll get again to his left hand. The man is the MVP for a cause.”

Harden is such a constantly dominant weapon that some imagine opponents are greatest served focusing their defensive plans on attempting to stop the Rockets’ supporting solid from getting in a rhythm. In different phrases, do your greatest to make Harden take tough pictures with out bending your defensive ideas to cope with him.

“That is the place the query begins: Do you restrict him or do you cease everyone else?” a West head coach stated. “Whenever you play towards him, can he get sufficient factors to single-handedly beat you? I believe that is the place the dialogue begins, as a result of whenever you begin to scheme for him and also you begin to ship further our bodies at him, then he nonetheless does what he does. He will rating, however whenever you get in rotations and also you throw further our bodies at him, it creates open triggers for everyone else.

“I believe that is what beats you, when he has his 40 factors plus 12 or 13 assists that he is creating for different folks, they usually’re 3s and dunks. Do you simply let him do his factor and hopefully shut down and restrict the opposite guys and see if he can single-handedly beat you?”

ESPN’s Malika Andrews contributed to this story.

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