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The Bucks’ counterintuitive defensive strategy against James Harden, explained

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Milwaukee used a unique approach to try and slow down the most unstoppable player in basketball. Did it work, and could other teams try it?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden has been such an unstoppable force that teams need to come up with new defensive strategies to have a prayer at slowing him down.

The Milwaukee Bucks took that to an extreme in their 116-109 win in Houston on Wednesday. They sat on Harden’s left, practically begging him to attack the basket with his weaker hand. Then, they kept a big man right in front of the basket, one whose sole job was to contest without fouling.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team cut off any Harden kick-out pass.

Teams employ all sorts of approaches to limit Harden, but none so blatantly invite him to drive right into the teeth of the defense. Let’s give the league’s best offensive player a free lane to the hoop isn’t exactly an easy sell.

But the strategy worked, in a sense. Harden scored 42 points and added six assists, but he also took 30 shots and committed nine turnovers. Amazingly, that scoring efficiency (1.4 points per shot, which is terrific for any other player) is below his season average of just over 1.5 points per shot, and the nine turnovers is his second-highest total of the season.

Most importantly, the Bucks won the game, which is all that really counts in the end.

You probably have questions. Here are some answers.

How does this work?

Milwaukee’s approach was a multi-pronged scheme that used all five players on the court to dictate the way Harden attacked and limit his other four teammates.

As Harden dribbled from the top of the key, the Bucks’ primary defender immediately shifted to Harden’s left side, positioning himself parallel to Harden’s own body. This practically begged Harden to drive to the basket with his right hand. In doing so, they also held their hands out as a means to avoid picking up cheap fouls.

This job fell to multiple Bucks, but primarily it was Eric Bledsoe early in the game and Malcolm Brogdon down the stretch. Khris Middleton and George Hill also took turns, though they were less effective.

Coach Mike Budenholzer’s plan was merely to shade Harden to go right, but Bledsoe decided to take it to another level, and the rest of the Bucks rolled with it.

“It wasn’t even trying to stay in front of him,” Bledsoe told reporters. “It was almost like, ‘You can have the lane.’”

Regardless of who came up with it, the strategy had merit. In sitting on Harden’s left side, the Bucks were able to jump over Houston’s screens and still make him go right.

They did this because they put a massive human being right at the basket to contest Harden’s drives without fouling. Most of the time, that was Brook Lopez, though Ersan Ilyasova took a turn as well. They did not attempt to block Harden’s shots. Instead, they just went straight up and took their chances with the law of verticality.

The key is to stay right at the basket. Cheat up any further, and that would’ve allowed Harden to dump off passes to Clint Capela for dunks. But by standing that far back, it was easier for the Bucks to contest Capela’s finishes.

Meanwhile, the other three Bucks engaged in a game of cat and mouse with Harden. As Harden drove down the lane, they stayed on their men to ensure Harden wouldn’t kick to them for a three. But once it became clear that Harden had made his decision, they reacted accordingly.

If it looked like Harden was zeroed in on finishing or finding Capela, the Bucks rotated off corner shooters quickly. The key was they did it after Harden could spot them, so he couldn’t make them pay.

This resulted in a few wins for Harden...

... but also several wins for the Bucks, in which they forced what looked like sloppy Harden turnovers, but were actually engineered by the Bucks’ defense.

OK, but why defend Harden this way?

An old youth coach of mine once described great defense with a phrase that’s stuck with me to this day. The key, he said, was to be the actor, not the reactor. Force the offense to beat you on your terms, not theirs.

It may not have been Budenholzer’s intention to take this concept that literally, but in effect, that’s exactly what Milwaukee did. The Bucks knew they could not stop everything Harden likes to do, because his game is too diverse. So, they decided that if they were going down, they would go down with Harden beating them in the way they chose.

Here are Harden’s signature skills:

  • Driving and finishing with either hand.
  • The stepback 3.
  • Driving and finishing with his left hand, which he’s more comfortable doing.
  • Reading a 2 on 1 situation and finding his big man for a dunk.
  • Drawing fouls via getting a player off-balanced and making them reach.
  • One-handed kickout passes on the move to open shooters.

The Bucks’ strategy was designed to cut off the final four bullet points on the list and accepted the trade-off that it’d make the first two easier. They were the actor, and Harden was the reactor.

Have we seen this before?

Yes, though not to this extreme. San Antonio employed an exaggerated drop coverage like this to win four of the last five games of their 2017 second-round playoff series. They, too, baited Harden to drive and finish over length, though they were not as aggressive forcing him right. Toronto took that approach to yet another level in a regular-season game last year.

Neither team’s scheme was quite as elaborate, but both had the same idea as the Bucks. The goal was to shut off Harden’s passing options and make him finish over length over and over again.

How can the Rockets deal with this if they see it again?

When the Raptors tried it on them last year, Houston adjusted by taking Capela out of the game and playing four shooters around Harden. That at least makes it tougher to plant a big man at the basket.

But with such a shallow roster, removing Capela wasn’t really a luxury this year, even though Harden briefly thrived late in the third quarter with P.J. Tucker at center.

The other fix is to get Harden attacking on the move so he can get to his strong left hand before the Bucks can set up their scheme. Houston has several pet plays they can use to do this. Here’s one from late in the game.

To execute those sets in non out-of-bounds situations, though, the Rockets need someone else with the ball-handling ability to start them. That, of course, is what a healthy Chris Paul provides. Houston traded for Paul after losing to San Antonio in 2017 to give itself more options against defense like this. They missed him badly on Wednesday.

Did it really work, though? Harden did score 42 points

Well, when you put it that way, damn.

Still, the answer is a tepid yes. Harden has so many deadly moves and has the ball in his hands so often, so he’s bound to put up huge numbers. But 30 shots is a lot for Harden, who averages about 22 on the season, and we already noted how he was less efficient than his season average.

I wouldn’t call this approach a panacea along the lines of the Pistons’ famed Jordan Rules to stop MJ, but I do think it’s the best chance teams have to slowing Harden down.

It’s certainly a better approach than the one the Denver Nuggets took the game before, where they trapped Harden 30 feet from the hoop in a misguided attempt to make the other Rockets beat them. All that did is set up 4 on 3 scenarios for Houston to exploit, and Harden still got his numbers anyway (32 points on 18 shots with 14 assists). In an attempt to remove Harden from the game, Denver instead made his mere presence significantly more powerful.

Milwaukee’s approach was the inverse of that. Rather than allow Houston to use Harden’s presence to lift everyone else up, the Bucks isolated Harden from the rest of his team. Harden scored plenty, but 30 shots is a lot for him, and six assists to nine turnovers is a bad ratio. The rest of the Rockets starters shot 11-38, and Capela, suddenly forced to finish over length instead of getting space to duck in and dunk, went 4-16.

In the end, that’s all you can do against Harden. Try to cut off some of his options, and maybe he’ll only drop 42 in a loss.