Coming into the series, James Harden was known for being a high volume shooter. Not only did he routinely throw up north of a dozen triples per game, but he found efficiency by getting to the line. Yet, the former MVP is criticized (and rightly so) for being largely ineffective once the ball is out of his hands.
Los Angeles knew that in order to win the series they must encourage Harden to either take tough, contested shots or surrender possession to a teammate. Put more simply, the Lakers dared Houston to rely on Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon to carry the offensive load. A battle-tested theory, focusing on curtailing your opponent’s best player seems to work out more often than not.
So, how did LA attempt to limit Harden? Two ways. Firstly, they tossed some defensive zone into the mix. More specifically, they used the zone to cover their butts when trying to double Harden. Secondly, Los Angeles threw pre-planned, well-timed double teams at the combo guard while playing man coverage. But did these schemes find success?
What’s the impetus for running a zone during double teams on James Harden? Presumably, the players who are not defending Harden have one extra man to guard. Defending space, not players, seems like a strategy that would make sense if there are not enough Lakers to cover all of Houston’s off-ball players.
While the scheme achieved Los Angeles’ goal of preventing field goal attempts for Harden, Houston was still able to capitalize. Although not always obvious, LA appeared to be in a 2-3 zone during the plays below. Houston was able to generate open shots and attack the weak spots on the court.
Zone doubles onto Harden were too predictable. Heady players know beforehand where the soft spots of the zone are. A well coached team such as the Rockets flashed into those areas and made LA pay. But what did we see when Frank Vogel threw out a rare box-and-one zone?
Watch LeBron James creep up near Harden as he mans one of the elbow spots in the zone. You can sense him waiting for the right moment to double onto Harden and force a pass. Houston came prepared. Eric Gordon sent Austin Rivers through to zone as a decoy. With elite corner shooter PJ Tucker moving to his favorite perimeter spot, Gordon received just enough space for a comfortable catch-and-shoot triple.
Zone doubling helped the Lakers get the ball out of Harden’s hands, but the Rockets were able to score regardless. In man coverage, however, Los Angeles did a much better job of helping onto the open man or pressuring Harden into making mistakes.
Whenever LA played man-to-man defense, Harden often looked uncomfortable. Better yet, he looked frustrated to the point where it induced lethargy. The Lakers were able to surround him with lanky wingspans and pesky defenders. This resulted in deflected passes, kicked balls and lots of turnovers.
Rewatch those plays one more time and look for Harden having to direct his players where to go on offense. Additionally, keep an eye on how he was frequently forced to push the issue, something that definitely lead to turnovers. Not only did these well executed doubles limit Harden’s shot attempts, but they kept him from settling into any sort of offensive rhythm.
By Game Five, however, Los Angeles was able to fully cash in on this scheme. They anticipated Houston’s…well, anticipation (I’m writing this minutes before NFL kickoff, gimme a break!) Predicting where Harden would pass when he was doubled, Los Angeles was able intercept passes. The best representation of this can be found in the play below.
If the Lakers meet Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers in the next round, do not be surprised to see this strategy. carry over. Los Angeles was able to lower Harden from his regular season average of about 12 3-point attempts per game to 7.4 in the postseason. That’s a remarkable feat. If Kawhi gets hot, expect LA to run a similar scheme.
BONUS! Listen to me and Zach Wilson summarize our feelings about this series. Plus, NBA media legend Sekou Smith joins us to talk Miami versus Boston!