Simply put, James Harden is a special offensive talent. He is so supremely gifted that trying to lock him down is more idealistic than realistic. Elite scorers like Harden will eventually find a solution for every defensive scheme.
The true barometer is whether opposing teams can chip into a superstar’s efficiency. Harden finished with a cool 34 points in TD Garden on Thursday, but the Celtics forced him to work tirelessly for it, and that’s the ultimate goal. He shot 7-for-27 from the field, and converted 15-of-15 from the charity strike. Uncharacteristically, the 28-year-old offensive dynamo coughed up eight turnovers, tied for his second highest total in a game this season.
Coming out of halftime, Brad Stevens turned up the defensive intensity. Slowed by the variety of looks that the Celtics threw at him, Harden was 3-for-17 on in the second half and had more turnovers than assists. His uneconomical production provided enough of a window for Boston to overcome a 26-point deficit.
Changing The Pick-And-Roll Defense
Harden is most efficient when handling the ball in the pick and roll. Such plays account for 39.1 percent of his usage (Per Synergy Sports), his most frequently utilized offensive role by far.
In the first half against Boston, the Rockets were playing a 5-out offensive set, which easily allowed them to use picks to get Harden isolated in a mismatch. Here, a simple 1-4 switch forces Al Horford on to an island with the NBA’s leading scorer:
Horford was victimized like this on a few instances in the first half. Even though the Celtic big man has warranted Defensive Player of the Year consideration, he isn’t going to consistently stick with one of the most skillful dribble-drivers alive.
In the second half, Horford was asked to use his savvy read-and-react skills to keep himself away from Harden. Watch below as the shrewd veteran pinpoints Harden calling for Ryan Anderson to set a ball screen. Before the Rockets can execute the switch, Horford prudently directs the quicker-footed Jayson Tatum to switch onto Anderson knowing that the rookie wing will ultimately end up with Harden.
Harden was still able to earn a decent look on the above play, but he had to work exponentially harder to get past Tatum. The simple communication adjustment created another benefit: Horford was able to sink back into the paint off ball. In that position, he can provide weak side rim protection and positional rebounding while vocally quarterbacking the defense.
Overall, Boston did a better job of collapsing onto Harden when he was able to gain paint penetration. The 6’5” MVP candidate is a wonderful distributor, but knowing that Houston was playing without Clint Capela’s rim running and Chris Paul’s playmaking, Boston cleverly gambled by swarming Harden with help defenders. Here, Harden’s scoring tunnel vision causes him to bypass a wide open Briante Weber in the corner:
Depth on the Wing
As Bojan Bogdanovic indicated before last season’s playoffs (sort of), you can never have too many wings.
The Celtic roster is built on positional switchability and beneficial length at the wing and combo forward spots. Despite not having Jaylen Brown and Semi Ojeleye against Houston, Boston’s wing versatility seemed to puzzle Harden at times.
Here are a pair of terrific defensive plays by Jayson Tatum. In the first clip, he lulls Harden toward the sideline to lessen his operating room. After he gathers for his patented step back-jumper, Tatum’s 7’0” wingspan offers enough verticality to alter the shot. The mature newcomer goes completely vertical and keeps his torso separated so that Harden can’t draw a cheap foul after the release.
In the second play, initial credit goes to the Boston team defense for yelling “Ice! Ice!”, essentially directing Tatum to prevent middle penetration by hopping to the high side of the ball screen, thereby daring Harden to drive away from the pick. When Harden instead attempts to reverse direction, Tatum is nicely positioned to use his Gumby-like arms to interfere with the crossover dribble.
Overall, Marcus Morris has been a net negative defender. Per Synergy Sports, he ranks only in the 32nd percentile in isolation defensive efficiency (albeit on only 18 total possessions). But in the below play, he blankets Harden with some tenacious on-ball ferocity.
Although the play ends up with a questionable foul, Morris could not have performed any better in such a critical moment of the game. If he can sustain this level of defensive intensity, he will serve as yet another pesky athletic wing that Brad Stevens can add to his chessboard.
Marcus Smart went into relentless bulldog mode
Those who don’t regularly watch Marcus Smart might have a pre-conceived notion about him. But basement shooting percentages and YouTube flopping compilations tell only a fraction of his story. Smart is 21st in total plus/minus, ahead of frontline stars Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic. Smart’s defensive grit is a key cog for the Celtics’ energy level, and his brilliance was on full display against Houston.
James Harden when defended by Marcus Smart last night:— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 29, 2017
(includes both Harden turnovers in the final 7 seconds) pic.twitter.com/gHQyCnPnB8
One of the trickiest aspects for scheming against Harden is trying to stop him from turning the corner on his defender to get his momentum moving downhill. Once he gains advantageous dribble drive positioning, his combination of artful footwork and shiftiness can become deadly. The Rockets failed to score a single fast break point in the second half, in part due to the Celtics only turning the ball over five times in the final 24 game minutes. There were no opportunities for Harden to accelerate in the open court.
Smart consistently picked up Harden in the backcourt to try to disrupt his rhythm. A critical ingredient for Boston’s defensive success against Harden was communicating screens to as early as possible so that Smart could maneuver around them with ease.
In a single possession, the 6’4” guard dodges around three screens before Harden can get anything going toward the basket. He ultimately settles for an end-of-clock fadeaway jumper, which should be considered a victorious possession for the Celtics defense:
And when Smart did get caught up on the occasional screen, he showed remarkable recovery skills to sprint back and dig the ball out from behind:
Harden’s craftiness is headlined by his ability to seek contact when maneuvering his way to the basket. His 32.1 points per game average is supplemented by his league leading 10.2 free throw attempts per game. Below, just as he gathers to get into his layup attempt, Smart acutely backs off instead of trying to contest. Harden looks almost surprised that he couldn’t draw a foul.
Statistics are accurate as of all games headed into January 1, 2018. Non-cited statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com. Salary information is from Spotrac.com.