Yet the Rockets’ three-game losing streak has prompted some frustration from Harden and revealed a fundamental flaw in his partnership with Westbrook. The Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks — three of the top four seeds in the Western Conference — deployed aggressive double teams on Harden while he orchestrated the half-court offense from up top. That strategy led the 2018 MVP to say he had “never seen that in an NBA game, where you’ve got really good defenders [on the ball] and you’ve got other guys running at a person on the top of the key.”
On Twitter, some Golden State Warriors fans seized on the comments as a slight to Stephen Curry, perhaps Harden’s top rival. After all, Curry has faced double teams, triple teams and even a box-and-one zone defense at various points in the playoffs since 2015.
But Harden’s comment was less about the quantity of the defensive attention he is facing and more about its location. Golden State’s offensive system relied heavily on ball movement and man movement. Curry therefore operated in isolation at the top of the key far less often than Harden, who loves to dribble deliberately as he surveys for driving lanes and step-back jumper opportunities.
Sending a double team at a star playmaker in such a situation can be suicidal. As Harden works on his own defender, he can see the entire court in front of him. If the double comes from the wing, Harden should have direct sightlines to his unguarded teammate, whether that player is spotting up at the three-point line or cutting into empty space toward the paint.
When Harden was flanked last season by Gordon and Chris Paul, multidimensional guards who were proven shooters and threats to attack off the dribble, the risk factor in doubling Harden went through the roof. Paul and Gordon were ready, willing and able to make the defense pay for overcommitting at the top.
The calculus has changed this year. With Gordon and Green out, less complete players have had to fill in on the wings. More importantly, Westbrook has replaced Paul as Harden’s lead sidekick, and he has shot terribly through the first month of the season. How terribly? Westbrook is shooting just 23 percent on nearly six three-point attempts per game, contributing to the Rockets’ three-point percentage falling from 12th last season to 25th this season.
“I have no problem [doubling Harden],” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said Friday. “None at all. The iso defense that everyone plays [on him] doesn’t work. You have to pick your poison at times. I don’t think you can give Harden one look. You do have to trap him some. I think you have to run and jump him some. Play him one-on-one some. He’s as clever of a scorer as we’ve ever seen, and he’s seen every single coverage.”
Doubling off Westbrook remains a calculated gamble; he can attack the hoop, draw rotating defenders and either finish going to the basket or find the open man with a pass. Even so, his limited shooting provides extra recovery time to the defense, and he often can’t help himself when left open on the perimeter. On Friday’s game-deciding possession, the Clippers doubled Harden and dared Westbrook to shoot. He missed a wide-open three-pointer. If there was any doubt about the Clippers’ strategy, Patrick Beverley mocked Westbrook’s shooting form from the bench after the errant shot.
Harden must come to understand, if he doesn’t already, that he made his bed and now must lie in it. It was Harden who reportedly was upset with Paul during and after the 2019 playoffs, and it was Harden who encouraged Morey to acquire Westbrook, a childhood friend.
In turn, Harden must also realize that the double teams are a sign of respect for his scoring prowess and a sign of disrespect for Westbrook’s range and lack of restraint. To advance deep in the playoffs, Harden and the Rockets must do better than living or dying by Westbrook three-pointers, like they did Friday against the Clippers.
That approach killed Oklahoma City year after year, and it will doom Houston all the same.