A lot has been made of various teams’ strategies to defend James Harden, with a lot of focus on the Milwaukee Bucks, who broke out a very unconventional tactic to ensure Harden had to drive into the paint, where Brook Lopez waited with arms raised to contest any shot at the rim and make Harden’s floaters more difficult. However, having Eric Bledsoe contest from behind and Lopez protect the rim wasn’t the end of the Bucks’ strategy; the other three defenders on the court are integrally involved in the scheme as well, with the key objective being to dissuade Harden from throwing passes to a shooter in either corner as he dribbled into the paint. Mike Prada wrote a great breakdown of how the Bucks were able to succeed in containing Harden in their matchups with the Rockets this season.
In Game 1 of their series against Houston, the Utah Jazz employed a very similar strategy. By stationing their on-ball defenders on Harden’s left shoulder, they were able to prevent his famous step back jumper and had Rudy Gobert playing the Brook Lopez role, only with more length and better defensive instincts. The Jazz don’t have anybody on the perimeter with the combination of strength and quickness Bledsoe possesses, but they do have Gobert, who can make up for anything extra Harden gets as a result of Utah’s less capable perimeter defenders. Utah’s on-ball defenders did their jobs against Harden, funneling him correctly toward Gobert and relying on their system to stymy him.
However, the bigger problem for Utah came elsewhere in Game 1 – they weren’t able to execute a modified version of Milwaukee’s strategy due to poor off-ball defense and a poor understanding of Harden’s particular passing skills. As has been pointed out elsewhere, most notably by Mike Zavagno on Twitter, Harden is at his best throwing the ball either even with his body or in front of him on a drive; he’s not particularly great at seeing an open man behind him and making the pass to the wing if he’s already past the free throw line on a drive to the rim. Milwaukee knows this, so they move their wing defenders with Harden as he drives, taking away the corner pass and relying on their length and recovery speed to get back to the wing if he does make that pass. Of course, it helps that they have Giannis Antetokounmpo on their team, who can essentially be in two places at once defensively, which changes how the Bucks rotate defensively against Harden’s isolation drives. Utah doesn’t have anybody who can replicate what Antetokounmpo brings defensively, but they can modify what the Bucks were able to do in order to put up more resistance against Harden in Game 2 and beyond.
Utah’s strategy in Game 1 was to put the on-ball defender on Harden’s left shoulder and allow him to drive into Gobert, with one of the corner defenders sinking in onto Capela to essentially box him out from being able to go up for an easy lob. This freed Gobert to focus solely on Harden, rather than having to play the “will he, won’t he?” game with the lob to Capela. Sinking a defender in also helped clean up the glass for the Jazz, as that guy would continue to box out as the shot went up. The issues arose elsewhere for the Jazz, as the defender sinking in on Capela needs to be helped in the corner.
When done correctly, the Rockets had precious few options other than Harden’s contested floater over Gobert:
The key is Mitchell – he has to drop with Harden to prevent the pass to the corner, otherwise it’s too easy for the Rockets to create consistent opportunities from beyond the arc.
Herein lies the problem for Utah: it’s difficult to ask Mitchell to help off of Eric Gordon, who can space the floor out to nearly half court, but the other side of that coin is giving up an open corner three to P.J. Tucker, who was near the league leaders in corner three-point shooting. To combat this, Utah should fully rotate, with Mitchell following Harden on the drive to take away the corner three and Ricky Rubio, who is guarding Danuel House at the top of the key, following Mitchell’s movements to rotate over to Gordon. This leaves House undefended for a time, but there are advantages to this for Utah. House is a worse shooter from the top of the key than Tucker is from the corner or Gordon is from the wing and the pass to House is a difficult one for Harden to make, because Ingles is literally standing behind Harden as he drives to the rim. Should the pass float over Ingles to get to House, then he’s within a step or two of contesting that shot or switching onto House for the time being. If Ingles takes House, then it’s up to someone else to defend Harden, but that’s where Sefolosha comes in; his job is done on Capela in the dunker spot, so he now steps up to take Harden and the Utah defense is no worse off than they were before.
Further complications arise when Harden drives where three of his teammates are waiting, while Capela is along in the dunker spot with nobody in the near corner to sink down onto him. In a heavy-rotation strategy, it would be up to the lowest defender to navigate his way across the paint and box out Capela anyway, then step up to Harden if he makes a pass out or continue to box out on a Harden shot attempt over Gobert.
Sefolosha and Gobert are both waiting for Harden in the restricted area, opening Capela on the cut for an easy finish. It seems counter-intuitive for Sefolosha to help so far away from his original mark, but once Harden commits to his drive, the rotation is on for Utah and Sefolosha needn’t be concerned with Tucker in the corner; that’s Mitchell’s job now. Sefolosha’s new job is to ensure Capela doesn’t get the ball, either on a pass or on the offensive glass, with his secondary job being to step up to defend Harden if Houston’s MVP passes it out to the perimeter and resets the offense. The rest of the Jazz will rotate as need be: Mitchell sinks into the corner to take Tucker, Rubio follows him to defend Gordon’s spot-up threat, and Ingles, who is already behind Harden and between him and House, is able to both contest Harden’s floater from behind and be in position to close out to House if needed.
A heavy-rotation strategy would bring with it issues based on the alignment of Houston’s perimeter players. In the above example, Harden is driving from the right side of the floor and all three of the Rockets’ other perimeter guys are lined up on the left side: corner, wing, and top of the key. What if Harden is driving from the top and his teammates are spread out with two in each corner and one on the wing?
This is a problem for Utah, as Jae Crowder has to sink down onto Capela, but there’s no defender to take Tucker in that circumstance. To expect Ingles, who is guarding Chris Paul at the top of the key, to drop down to defend Tucker might be asking a bit too much, but if the Jazz were to commit to a heavy-rotation defense, then that’s likely what would have to happen. If Harden flips the ball back to Paul, then Rubio is Paul’s new defender and Crowder disengages with Capela to pick up Harden, though Ingles can also take Harden based on where he goes after making the pass back to Paul, with Crowder getting back out to Tucker. This is more tenuous for the Jazz, as Ingles would have drop way off of Paul in order to get this done, which isn’t necessarily something teams like to do, for good reason. It would also put a lot of weight on Rubio’s shoulders – contesting from behind on Harden and being responsible for closing out and defending Paul might be too much for one player to handle, even if that player is Ricky Rubio.
The bet Utah would be making in that spot is that Harden won’t see or make that pass to Paul. He’s never been particularly adept at throwing the ball behind him to the perimeter and, at the very least, it would make him less comfortable with knowing exactly where the open man is.
The most difficult setup for Utah to defend is when the single shooter is in the right corner and Capela is stationed in the dunker spot on the right side of the rim.
Gordon misses the shot, but the fact that it was so open doesn’t bode well for the Jazz. This is a nearly impossible situation for them to cover well, as Harden is able to make the pass to Gordon with his stronger left hand and Mitchell is on an island defending both Capela under the rim and Gordon at the three-point line. The solution here may be similar to Sefolosha’s help earlier – have the corner defender on the left side help all the way across onto Capela as Harden drives, then rotate behind him. In the above clip, that would be Crowder’s mark, which would alleviate that responsibility from Mitchell and allow him to stay home. Tucker would be the next man open, so Ingles would drop down from the left wing to the left corner to take away that pass. Rubio, who is already behind Harden, would be in charge of contesting or getting out to Paul on the left wing, should that pass be made.
Crowder might be just too far away from Capela to offer adequate help in the mere seconds it takes Harden to work his way down the lane, so another solution to this problem would be to change up how Rubio defends Harden once the drive begins. Rubio does well to stay on Harden’s left shoulder, but once he ventures inside the three-point line, staying there isn’t necessarily as important as taking away the pass to Gordon. If Rubio slides around Harden to be on his right instead of his left, he could at least make the pass to Gordon more difficult, giving Mitchell time to recover out and deter the shot. This would take Rubio away from his contest responsibilities on Harden’s floater, but Gobert is still there at the rim to do his job, which would hopefully be good enough from Utah’s perspective.
Utah doesn’t have the singular perimeter defensive talent Milwaukee has in Antetokounmpo, but they have lots of players who can execute the no-left strategy on the ball against Harden. This sort of heavy rotation is very difficult and is going to lead to breakdowns in coverage, but when executed well, it should take away just about everything Houston wants to do offensively in those isolations. Given how Game 1 went, the Jazz are going to need a near perfect defensive performance in order to have a chance in this series anyway, so going with a strategy that has a lot of inherent risks but high upside might be the key for them to steal Game 2 in Houston and make it a series. Additionally, installing all these reads and rotations may be nearly impossible to do between games – this is where my lack of experience as an NBA coach in a playoff series shines – but if it’s possible to change up how the Jazz defend in these spots to go with a heavy-rotation strategy, it might be the key to stopping Harden’s drive-and-kick game without opening themselves up to unending dunks from Capela.