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Picking your poison: defending the lethal James Harden pick-and-roll

Harden got essentially whatever he wanted in Game 1. How do the Celtics stop it in Game 2?

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The 76ers are far from a perfect team, but they do have a luxury few teams in NBA history have had.

That is, when they lose the NBA’s scoring champion to injury, they can turn to a former scoring champion to help fill the void.

James Harden reminded everyone Monday night that he does, in fact, still have it. Harden exploded for 45 points, on 17-of-30 shooting, powering the 76ers to a 119-115 win over the Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Once he came in walking like this, you had a feeling it might be a long night for the Celtics.

Harden got wherever he wanted, and scored in a variety of ways, but the bulk of his damage came in the pick-and-roll with Paul Reed, P.J. Tucker and other Sixers.

Give Doc Rivers, Harden and the 76ers credit. They had a strategically sound game plan and executed it extremely well, and Harden burned Boston over and over and over again. It felt like Trae Young Game 5 2.0.

“Defensively, I don’t think they felt us,” Al Horford said.

That’s for sure.

The Celtics need to quickly put Game 1 behind them. If they don’t, and they drop Game 2, their season could be over quite soon.

At the same time, they need to learn from Monday’s debacle to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Harden is a transcendent offensive player, and he’s going to get his, but the pick-and-roll simply can’t work that high a percentage of the time.

So how should Boston defend it? Well, it depends on the specifics of the play, but there are three rules the Celtics should generally follow: 1) don’t switch just for the sake of switching; 2) if they have to switch, switch aggressively, and communicate; 3) once the switch happens, play way up, expect the stepback to the right, help on the drive and rotate accordingly.

Let’s look at some examples:

On this one, Smart shouldn’t have automatically assumed Horford would help. Just because he sticks his arm out and signals to Horford, it doesn’t mean he can nonchalantly stand behind the screen.

Instead, he should have committed to going under the screen, prevented Harden from taking a 3 and then expected help from Horford. Horford needed to step up and make life at least moderately difficult for Harden, rather than stay back and worry about the Reed roll. No disrespect to Reed, who had a great game, but the Celtics want him shooting as much as possible.

On this one, Jalen McDaniels sets the screen. Malcolm Brogdon does the right thing and sneaks around it to prevent Harden from launching a step-back 3. But, Robert Williams backpedals and is on his heels. Instead, he should have gotten in Harden’s airspace and made him pass.

“It’s just about picking up our pressure and trying to make people uncomfortable,” Tatum said.

No one else is open here, so Harden had to shoot. Williams should have made it more difficult so it wasn’t all on Brogdon. Jayson Tatum then could have rotated to cover McDaniels, and Brown could have watched Tucker in the corner. Credit to Harden for making yet another tough shot.

This one might have been the most telling of the night. The Celtics have their best defender in Smart on Harden, and Smart makes the right decision by going over to alter his path.

Harden calmly brushes him aside, goes to the step-back and fires away. Look closely at Smart’s body language. Harden may have gotten away with a slight push-off, but the refs weren’t going to call it. Smart needs to expect that stepback and make him a driver.

Give Tucker credit here as well. He’s an excellent screener, and the Sixers executed it to perfection. At the same time, Jaylen Brown was too nonchalant and didn’t fight hard enough to get around it. Once Horford sees Brown is beat, he needs to step up. Initially, no, but at that point, yes.

Last but not least, the shot of the night. This one wasn’t a pick-and-roll, but the story is the same. No disrespect to Al Horford, who’s an outstanding defender and had a solid all-around game, but he just can’t guard Harden 1-on-1 when he’s feeling it. Few guys can, but Horford definitely can’t.

The Celtics shouldn’t have let that switch happen. Once it did, they should have sent help and made someone else beat them. The Sixers have capable shot-makers, but the guy with 42 shouldn’t be getting that easy of a look with the game on the line.

“It’s a good learning experience for me and knowing how I would handle it next time if I’m in that position,” Horford said.

Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla noted that doubling Harden early got the 76ers some open 3s, then Harden hit the big shot over the switch to win it.

“Hindsight is always 20-20,” Mazzulla said.

So, to sum up here:

  • Harden is extremely talented. He’s going to get his.
  • It shouldn’t come that easily. The Celtics need to make him a driver and a passer.
  • Once the pick comes, if Brown, Tatum, Smart, Brogdon, Derrick White or Grant Williams is on him, aggressively find a path back to the ball.
  • If they can’t get around the screen and alter the stepback, then as a last resort, send Horford to the ball. If that happens, try to send more help and let someone else beat you, then also try to communicate and rotate to prevent open 3’s.
  • Another workaround is that once the Celtics see the screener heading toward Harden, they can switch proactively and have someone else tag along rather than Horford.
  • As long as Joel Embiid is out, consider going small with a Smart-White-Brogdon-Brown-Tatum switch-everything lineup.

Harden is great. We already knew that, but he reminded us Monday night. But he shouldn’t absolutely dominate the way he did in Game 1. The Celtics need to play defense the way they know how – when they were at their best last year – and figure out how to keep him in check.

Embiid or no Embiid, this is very much a series, and moving to Game 2, no adjustment is more pressing than the stymying Harden pick and roll.

“He’s a great player, he makes tough shots,” Brogdon said, “but he can’t have the game he had.”

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