I think so? Traditionally, blogs that start with such uncertainty don’t bode well for the writer, but here I stand. Friday night’s series opener revealed the Laker’s game plan for defending James Harden. Although it didn’t quite work, there were elements that could potentially lead to success.
Harden’s propensity to attempt his patented stepback 3-pointer led Frank Vogel to implement a scheme that tried to prevent those shots. In particular, Los Angeles shaded Harden’s left side (his shooting hand) and in doing so wittingly surrendered a driving lane. If Harden opted out of the stepback and into a rim attack, Laker shot blockers were supposed to be waiting for a contest.
LeBron dug in to ensure Harden could not pull up. Though Anthony Davis was called for a questionable foul, his defense of Harden perfectly displayed what the Lakers were trying to do. But was the emphasis on limiting the stepback successful?
There is an ending to that clip of LeBron guarding Harden, but it isn’t exactly enjoyable for Lakers fans. JaVale McGee rotates into help position to contest the shot. Problem is, he was flatfooted and frustratingly slow.
McGee literally walked into the paint to contest Harden, as if The Bearded One is not the best scorer in the NBA. JaVale is relying on his freakish wingspan to alter Harden’s shot yet, the former MVP can easily release a floater that for the score.
Again, witness Danny Green shade Harden out of his stepback and into a drive. McGee is in solid position once more but he walks into his contest. Harden needs to be met earlier into his decision making process if his shot is to be truly altered. Simply put, McGee’s lead-footed rotations actually allow Harden more time to consider how he must release his shot.
Los Angeles got lucky on this next Harden miss. McGee comes to a near standstill during his rotation and had minimal impact on the floater. This is a shot Harden would love to have back. Regardless, McGee must meet Harden higher in the paint. Doing so could lead to a Harden blow by, sure. But gambling that a teammate can help the helper is better than consistently giving up open paint attempts.
It Wasn’t Just JaVale, Though
Even Defensive Player of the Year candidate (and spurned winner, in my opinion) Anthony Davis made some wrong decisions. Was he in his position to take a charge call against Harden? Absolutely. But why is a near 7-foot, shot swatting extraordinaire looking for charges instead of doing what he does best?
In the play below, Davis obviously tried to draw the foul. By the time he got into position, however, Harden was already deep into his shooting motion. After denying the stepback, the goal for LA is to force Harden to opt out of the paint attempt or heavily contest it. Davis was the recipient of a bad call, but he was more likely the result of poorly executed strategy.
There Is Hope
Much has been written in anticipation of this series. Many have argued that Los Angeles should lean on their size advantage. Vogel’s defensive game plan in Game One suggested he too believed their height could limit Houston’s potent offense. To an extent, it can.
It wasn’t the Los Angeles bigs who most impressively executed Vogel’s scheme, however. It was LeBron James (naturally.) The key to bothering James Harden does not truly lie in the length in defenders rather, the rapidity in which you get to Harden before he makes his decision. Watch LeBron hurriedly get to him and forced a turnover off of a bad pass.
LeBron left his feet for the contest at the exact moment Harden gathered for his shot. This is the timing Los Angeles needs to make Harden think twice about laying it up. JaVale McGee’s defense is a hair too slow and that makes all the difference when defending a player of Harden’s caliber.
James came through once more on the defensive end. His rotation is quick and Harden must put up a tough, off-handed runner. Still, you can see that if James arrived a nanosecond later then Harden could have banked home the shot.
What Will Happen In Game Two?
Do not expect Vogel to make major personnel changes. Instead, watch to see if he alters where McGee is positioned on the court. Will he task him with cheating off shooters more so he can meet Harden higher in the paint? Doing that is a risky proposition, however. The trick to bothering Harden doesn’t depend on where you meet him on the court as much as where you meet him during his decision making process.
Vogel could depend on Dwight Howard more. Or maybe he lessens McGee’s minutes and gives them to Davis. Playing AD at the five will give even more minutes to LeBron to spend as another rotating paint protector; a role we saw him have success with. Nonetheless, the Laker’s plan to limit Harden’s stepbacks will likely continue. We will have to wait and see how they adjust to his paint drives.