James Harden is one of the league's toughest covers, so it requires a multi-pronged team effort to minimize his impact on a game. Luckily for playoff opponents, the Phoenix Suns provided such a blueprint in Saturday's 117-102 victory over the Rockets in Houston. Harden finished 5-of-19 from the field with only five free-throw attempts in the loss, and it was hardly a matter of bad luck or a rough shooting night.
Here was the Suns' strategy:
1. A herculean P.J. Tucker effort
Nothing else matters if Harden's primary defender doesn't do his job, and P.J. Tucker did his damn job. He's done his job often against Harden, using his size, quickness and discipline to force Harden into areas he doesn't like. But there's no fancy scheme for individual defense like this:
It's incredibly hard to stay in front of James Harden, but Tucker managed to do it by not falling for Harden's many delay tactics. Harden likes to lull defenders to sleep with slow crossovers and pointless jukes before finally accelerating as soon as they come out of their stance. Tucker never went for any of those and only moved his feet when it was clear Harden was trying to get downhill.
Sounds simple, but it's way easier said than done. Tucker did it.
2. Trap Harden in the mid-range pocket
Teams walk a tight balance when trying to guard Harden pick and rolls. Everyone knows Harden is reluctant to shoot mid-range jumpers, but his driving and passing ability makes even a simple coverage decision difficult. If the big man comes out too high to trap him, Harden can use his vision to find any shooter or slip around him into the lane. If the big man plays too conservatively, Harden can manipulate the space, get an edge and score or draw a foul.
The ideal outcome is to contain Harden in a pocket of space just above the free-throw line. This requires discipline by the primary defender, pristine positioning by the helping big man and the other three players pinching down enough to contact Harden, but not too much that their men will be open with an easy pass.
Brandan Wright in particular did a nice job sealing off the lane. Look at his defensive stance and positioning on this play:
Harden can attack him, but with what space? Wright's arms cover the gap between Harden and the corner shooter, and Tucker and Marcus Morris have done enough to prevent Harden from coming back to his left hand. Harden's only play is to draw Wright, wait for Josh Smith to dive and hope there's a window to hit an open Trevor Ariza on the left wing, but Morris anticipates the move and steals the pass.
It wasn't just Wright, though. Notice how Eric Bledsoe runs way off Pablo Prigioni (not pictured) to help cut off the pocket pass to Donatas Motiejunas on this play:
There's a trade-off the Suns make with decisions like these. Harden has amazing vision to see these help defenders and will find a teammate on any part of the court. Houston generates so much offense from Harden's ability to tilt defenses to him and find open shooters.
But the Suns made a calculation other teams surely will as well in April, May and June: those shooters can be run off the three-point line, where they become much less effective. Take this play with under three minutes left. The Suns stop Harden going right and use Ariza's man to pinch down and help on the rolling Motiejunas:
Harden reads this and finds Ariza eventually, but watch how the Suns scramble when he does:
Marcus Morris rotates off Corey Brewer to prevent Ariza from launching a three, then passes him off to brother Markieff once Ariza gets stuck without a plan in the middle of the lane. The Rockets end up with a bad shot because their spacing is bad and Ariza isn't adept making a play off the dribble. The Suns' plan of loading to Harden works.
The Suns didn't trust that Harden's teammates could make them pay enough when they double-teamed. They were right. Those teammates need to step up in the playoffs.
3. Don't foul
This is way, way easier said than done, but it's not impossible. The key is not to take Harden's bait. He dangles the ball out when he drives and will jump into or through any big man if he sees he has the angle. The Suns needed to stay vertical on drives and trust that their presence alone could alter Harden's shots.
This is textbook work from Markieff Morris:
As is this from Tucker:
Harden tried to create contact by jumping into the Suns in both cases, but no foul was called because Morris and Tucker stayed vertical and didn't compromise their positioning. The challenge is to not get demoralized if Harden finishes the play, because he often will. But if teams trust the process, they'll limit Harden's free-throw attempts and take away a key weapon for him and the Rockets.
4. They went at Harden on the other end
As the old cliche goes, the Suns didn't let Harden rest on defense. Tucker had an active game, hitting 8-of-12 from the field for 27 points. He got loose for threes, cuts and leak-outs, but he also wasn't afraid to go at Harden in the low post. This may seem counter intuitive because Harden, for all his defensive faults elsewhere, does a nice job defending post-ups because he's strong and willing to do the work. (Where he struggles is when his lack of lateral quickness and concentration gets exposed: on the perimeter and off the ball). And indeed, the Suns didn't have a ton of success on the plays they did go to Tucker inside.
But all that has a cumulative effect on Harden's legs. It's hard work defending a tough guy like Tucker inside, even if Harden succeeded. He had less energy to close out the game late -- when is the last time you saw Harden come up that short on a late-game three in the second clip posted above?
If this sounds familiar, it's because this is the exact strategy the Trail Blazers used to contain Harden in last year's first-round series. They had a tough and disciplined primary defender (Wes Matthews) that could also go at Harden in the post on the other end. They had a conservative defensive scheme that trapped Harden in the mid-range area and focused on creating misses instead of blocking shots or generating steals. They had length to help on the opposite side and a willingness to let other Rockets beat them.
Not every West playoff contender has all those elements, but they'd be smart to adjust their approach to mirror the Portland/Phoenix strategy if they draw the Rockets in Round 1.