James Harden is a top-three MVP candidate because of the precision with which he runs Houston’s high-powered offense. As spectacular as he has been this year, there are definitely some holes in his game. Here’s how the Spurs can exploit Harden’s weaknesses on both ends of the floor to close this series out.
Harden might just be the best individual creator in basketball today. In the regular season he became the first player ever to average 25+ points and 25+ points from assists. He has thrived in Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense, and he seems to always create a high percentage shot out of that spread pick-and-roll.
The key to stopping the Rockets is to limit Harden’s options as a playmaker and encourage him to take bad shots.
Harden has averaged 15 assists in his two wins in this series, and just 8.33 per game in the three losses. If he penetrates and collapses the defense, shooters are often left wide open at the arc. That’s when Harden is at his most dangerous; when he can create open catch-and-shoot looks for guys like Eric Gordon and Lou Williams.
Harden is thought of around the league as a dangerous three-point shooter, but he isn’t exactly a deadeye from out there. In this series he’s just 18/56 (32%) from long range. Coincidentally that’s Jonathon Simmons’ career mark, and the Rockets haven’t even bothered to guard him at the arc.
“The Beard” is a volume shooter, and the Spurs should let him chuck as many attempts as he wants. He’s hitting about the same number of threes in wins and losses in the series, but he’s shot almost three more attempts from long range in losses.
Harden was 4/15 from deep in Game 5, including 0/3 in overtime. Down the stretch, he elected to run the clock down and jack up difficult attempts rather than create for his teammates, and that’s exactly what the Spurs want him to do. One of the only offensive weaknesses for Harden is his shot selection.
Part of the reason Harden is struggling from beyond the arc is that almost all of his attempts have been pull-ups or step backs. In fact, he has dribbled before all but five of his 56 attempts in this series. These are usually pretty tough shots, so in a way it’s impressive that he has shot around league average.
Here’s a fun stat: Harden is 3/23 (13%) on three-point attempts when guarded by either Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard in this series. When he’s guarded by a big, however, he’s hit 7/16 (44%). Usually those chances are created when Harden gets a screen and the Spurs switch it. When that happens the Rockets give him space to isolate, and he performs a dizzying sequence of dribble moves and crossovers before stepping back and shooting.
The Spurs should continue to zone up on the high pick and roll, meaning the big doesn’t play the pick and instead plays a one-man zone defense at the elbow while the wing defender fights over or under the screen. It invites Harden to shoot a contested three, and that’s what the Spurs want.
If the wing defender can get around the pick, and the big can contain Harden’s drive while blocking the passing lane to the roll man, the other defenders can stay home on shooters and let Harden take a tough three. He has shot just 5/23 from distance when the Spurs don’t switch on the high screen.
Additionally, they should switch only as a last resort. It’s nearly impossible for David Lee to defend when switched onto Harden. He isn’t quick enough to recover if Harden drives, and he isn’t long enough to contest those step-back threes effectively. Dedmon has the ability to do both, but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has not given the athletic center much playing time of late.
By staying home on shooters, it limit’s Harden’s opportunities to create for them and increases the likelihood that he’ll turn the ball over with a bad pass. He has averaged five turnovers a game this series, and six per game in losses.
James Harden has earned a reputation as a bad defender, but that isn’t entirely accurate. It’s fair to criticize his play on that end of the floor, but he’s actually pretty solid when he tries. The main issue with Harden’s defense has always been focus and effort, and that’s what the Spurs need to exploit.
Harden has done a surprisingly good job of defending LaMarcus Aldridge in the post. Aldridge has said that he doesn’t want to risk an offensive foul by banging too hard with the smaller defender down low. That makes sense, but Aldridge should still be able to get to the rim against Harden without fouling. Even so, you have to give Harden credit for playing solid defense in the paint. He’s also guarded Pau Gasol and even Leonard pretty well down there.
It might make more sense for San Antonio to attack Harden with drives and pick and rolls, as he’s looked especially vulnerable there when the Rockets go small. Ginobili and Simmons took advantage throughout Game 5, and Danny Green drove left past Harden for the game winning and-1 in overtime.
By far the worst part of Harden’s game is his focus on the defensive end of the floor. He loses track of his man while watching the ball frequently, and the Spurs should be aware of that fact and look for the open man as they run their sets.
Manu Ginobili’s Game 5 dunk brought the crowd and his teammates on the bench to their feet. It was an impressive show of athleticism for the almost 40-year-old guard, but it was made possible by Harden’s lack of focus in transition. He watched the ball and gravitated toward it like a moth to the flame, and in doing so gave Ginobili a wide open lane to the basket.
Harden is no doubt a superstar, but the superstar mindset he plays with makes him beatable. He takes bad shots, he’s turnover prone, and he doesn’t pay nearly as much attention on defense as he should. If the Spurs take advantage, they’ll move on to face the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.