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Rockets’ last loss to LA shows adjustment James Harden needs to make

Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

James Harden fell right into the hands of the Clippers’ game plan in their last meeting, resulting in a big loss for the Houston Rockets.

One of the greatest things about James Harden‘s game is the variety of moves in his arsenal. From step back threes to euro-step drives and pull-up jumpers, the Houston Rockets go as he goes. While he has the skills to make him one of the most unguardable players in NBA history, he has a tendency to forget about his variety for long stretches.

Harden’s bad habit was especially evident when the Rockets hosted the LA Clippers last March. The result was a 16-point effort from James on 0-of-8 shooting from the outside, which was only the second time all season he failed to make at least one 3-pointer.

It’s happened time and time again — the best defensive teams will always allow you to beat yourself if you play into it. From Gregg Popovich’s defensive scheme with San Antonio to Steve Kerr’s with Golden State, allowing opponents to fill up on the one-on-one, contested longballs has always been a big key for the most successful teams.

Both employed the strategy with LeBron James in their various meetings deep in the playoffs, which forced James to beat them in other ways. Harden has the ability to do that, but he’s not nearly doing that enough. Instead, plays like this are happening:

Marcus Morris is a fine defender, but settling for the step back long shot in this situation is about the last option I’d bank on being successful here. Harden’s right side is open, and even if he wanted to drive left, Kawhi was being forced to follow Robert Covington when James decided to rise up.

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This play shows even more of how Harden is playing right into the Clippers’ hands. Here, all five Rockets are standing out on the perimeter while Harden is again being guarded by Marcus Morris on the wing. Again, Harden’s right side is wide open for a drive, which would force either Ivica Zubac or Kawhi Leonard to help out, leaving someone open. Instead, this happens:

I’d understand this as a heat check type of shot, but James was 0-of-4 from beyond the arc at this point. In a playoff scenario, the Clippers and every other well-coached team will give up this shot every time.

Of course, the Rockets can get away with this when Harden’s shot is falling, as it was in two of the matchups with the Clippers. He’s even capable of carrying them to series wins with these types of shots as his main weapon.

I just don’t trust wasted possessions like these against talent like the Clippers or Lakers, where the margin for error is slim. Harden has more-than-capable shooters surrounding him, as well as one of the league’s most hard-nosed slashers in Russell Westbrook.

Part of the issue is with Harden himself, but Mike D’Antoni needs to have a more hands-on approach with his team when he sees a recurring issue like this. Of all the 3-pointers Harden attempted in all four games against the Clippers, only a handful came off of a pass, like this one from Russ in the open court.

Yes, James Harden needs to still be allowed to be James Harden — that’s how the team has had so much success with him as the leader. He will get his share of isolation step backs and will make many of them.

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To get the Rockets to the next level, though, he definitely could stand to make some adjustments, and soon.