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Houston Rockets: How the Warriors Shut Down James Harden

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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Houston Rockets: How the Warriors Shut Down James Harden

James Harden has been on a offensive terror this year. He currently leads the league in points per game (27.5), free throw attempts and has registered the most 30+ and 40+ point games.

It’s a given teams are game planning for Harden, but when a team sweeps you in a series and manages to stifle the top offensive player in the process it warrants further examination.

To date, the team who did the best job shutting down Harden was Golden State who not only swept the series but held him below his regular standard of play. The Warriors specifically were successful at stymieing Harden’s play making ability which led to his teammates not performing up to their standards either.

Harden for his part still managed to register two games above his season scoring average. However on a whole through the series the Warriors held Harden below his offensive averages across the board.

Breaking down the numbers game by game:

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How the Warriors slowed Harden: 

Golden State employed a defense on Harden that focused on primarily blocking his drives and passing lanes. In essence the Warriors shut down Harden’s ability to get the ball to his team mates, filled the paint and stayed off him enough to stop his drives. Basically they decided to live with his 3-point shooting and that’s about all they gave him.  And in fairness, there were even occasions where they got up on him to dissuade his outside shots as well. The fact the Warriors were successful to the degree they were serves to highlight a few things:

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  • The Rockets are limited in their scoring options, especially when there isn’t sufficient ball and player movement
  • James Harden is carrying way too much of the ball handling responsibilities
  • Utilizing multiple defenders, especially when they feature height and speed garners the best results versus Harden
  • As the primary decision maker and ball handler when you block passing lanes and tier defenders who will collapse on his drives you force Harden into becoming the primary scorer on virtually every play. Couple that with height and you reduce his ability to score. It’s not a guarantee of success, but it’s your best bet.

What worked for the Warriors defensively by game:

Taking each of the games individually highlights specifically where the Dubs defensive strategy was successful:

Game 1: Golden State forced Harden into a frequent shooter by stopping his drives. His 8 for 24 field goals and 1 of 11 three-pointers speak to that.

Game 2: This was the Dubs least successful game as Harden scored 34 points, however they held his assists down (4), kept him off the line and forced 5 turnovers.

Game 3: This game was the Warriors most complete effort versus Harden where they accomplished almost all their goals: he scored a measly 12 points on 4 of 16 from the field or 25%, had just 4 assists, missed all four 3-point attempts and was rendered ineffective at ball movement.

Game 4: This game perhaps speaks to the fact you can’t keep a top scorer down. Harden had another 30+ scoring night, but unlike Game 2 he did so shooting at a higher percent (44%) including from behind the arc (50%) and found a way to get to the line 16 times.

Why the opposition may not be able to replicate the Warriors’ success:

While opponents will likely look to replicate what Golden State did to the Beard this strategy is easier said than done. In fairness few teams have the depth of personnel to match the Warriors and fewer still have the height at every position that  Golden State employs.

Across the board the Warriors have athletic, extremely long and quick guards and forwards. Only Andrew Bogut is not necessarily fleet of foot and he offers paint and rim protection.

At the end of the day there is a reason Golden State rank first on defense and have since the opening day. Fortunately for James Harden their series is complete versus the Warriors for this regular season. Furthermore of the remaining 31 games the Rockets have left to finish the regular season only 8 teams rank in the top-10 defensively and of those 5 are in the Western Conference.

In addition, coach Kevin McHale has capable passing bigs in Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, Josh Smith and even Joey Dorsey. Something we saw immediately after the final Golden State loss was the Rockets employing more of an inside out game which dissipates the above strategy as opponents have to counter by  increasing their paint presence.

Obviously opposing coaches are madly viewing the Golden State series versus Houston tapes isolating their defensive schemes on James Harden.

The problem is even the number one defensive ranked Warriors couldn’t stop Harden completely and only truly successfully shut him down once out of the four occasions.

That doesn’t bode well for the other 28 teams looking to gain an edge versus both Harden and Houston’s offense. Nor does it factor in while they waste all their energy on defense the Rockets are still a top 5 defensive team themselves.

Just ask Jimmy Butler who is considered one of the best 2-way players in the league who was embarrassed not once, but twice last week trying to defend the bearded one.

Factor in that an extended All-Star break will go a long way to providing rest for the fatigued Harden who as he’s proven nightly isn’t about to make any excuses why Houston can’t retain home court, even without the services of Dwight Howard for the next 6 to 8 weeks.

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