James Harden has looks unstoppable for the Houston Rockets, and defending him seems nearly impossible. He has already broken a Wilt Chamberlain record, scoring 30 points or more in 32 straight games — he scored 50 or more points in eight of those games and 61 points twice. He has taken the Rockets from 14th in the Western Conference to a tie for third entering Thursday’s games and is right in the middle of the MVP conversation again after winning the award last year.
The left-hander has all the tools you would want in a modern NBA guard: Harden gets to the rim at will, draws fouls at a rate that drives opponents insane, finds open teammates if defenses help on him and his step-back three-point shot is perhaps as lethal as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook.
But it appears the Milwaukee Bucks have a blueprint that reduces Harden from great to good, and it is simple: Force him to go right.
The blueprint is simple to follow, but not necessarily easy to execute. It requires intense discipline and all five guys must be on the same page. Yet that’s where the Bucks excel.
Milwaukee did a masterful job staying on Harden’s left hip in both their games this season. It didn’t matter where on the court he was or who was defending him: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Sterling Brown and Giannis Antetokounmpo were all determined to keep him going right.
They did it a total of 100 times out of 124 Harden possessions over the two games, both wins for Milwaukee, and limited Harden to 0.9 points per possession in those instances. During Tuesday night’s game they forced Harden right on 47 of 49 possessions, holding Harden to 0.7 points per possession for the night. He averages 1.1 points per possession in 2018-19.
Here’s how it worked: Harden drove baseline into a waiting Brook Lopez, while Antetokounmpo was pulled in ready to take the rolling Clint Capela, trusting that Khris Middleton was ready to rotate to any pass on the weak side. The Bucks forced a turnover when Harden tried to squeeze a pass to Capela, triggering a fast break lob dunk for Antetokounmpo the other way.
The Bucks are not the only team trying to push Harden to the right. The New Orleans Pelicans followed the blueprint in a win in January. After trapping a pick-and-roll and trying to deny him from getting the ball back, Jrue Holiday jumped on his left side to completely take away any lane to the left. Harden went into his patented step-back shot but Holiday was ready and blocked the shot.
Other teams may want to follow suit. Just remember: Harden is still going to get his; that’s what makes him an MVP candidate. But that doesn’t mean teams can’t make things as difficult as possible.
“He gonna do what he do, I mean he’s averaging what, like, 30 points for a reason,” Bledsoe said to Jason Terry in an interview for TNT’s Player’s Only broadcast. “I’m just trying to make it tough on the man, hope my teammates got my back.”
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