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Film Room: Clippers showcase how not to guard James Harden

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It's never good when an opposing player lights you up for 46 points. It's even worse when the defense, or lack thereof, is why he did so.

Giving up 46 points to any player must be frustrating, but giving up 46 points to a player like James Harden has to be even more frustrating considering the fact that J.J. Redick has usually always done an awesome job defending him the last couple seasons. Throughout the course of the game on Saturday night, the Los Angeles Clippers routinely let the Houston Rockets’ foul-baiting shooting guard get wherever he wanted to on the court thanks to porous defense. This Film Room will look at the tape.

It’s not even that James Harden made 14 of the 26 shots that he hoisted up on Saturday night, but rather the way in which he did it. Very few of them were of the stressful variety. Way too many times the Clippers would put a subpar defender on Harden and hope for the best. Not shockingly, it did not go well for the team in the least. Harden committed 7 turnovers and had 4 fouls, but those were the only blemishes on an otherwise phenomenal night for the runner-up in MVP voting last season.

For reasons that haven’t even been made clear yet, Los Angeles head coach Doc Rivers opted to go with Pablo Prigioni, Paul Pierce, and even Austin Rivers on Harden for vast stretches. While Rivers is the best defender out of the group, and a really good defender all-around, he’s still not up to Harden’s level when it comes to craftiness or intelligence. Part of the reason Redick does so well on Harden isn’t because of his physical attributes so much as his mental exquisiteness. Yet, Redick saw very few possessions against Harden. Same thing with Lance Stephenson. It was quite perplexing.

We’re not going to show all 14 shots that Harden made. Instead, we’re going to show 9 of them and see where the Clippers went wrong with their defense against the guy. Sometimes there’s not much you can do against a player when he’s scorching from everywhere on the court. However, you can slow him down. The Clippers made no attempt to do so and it cost the team in the end. So, kick back and get ready for a pretty tough Film Room. You might want to crack open a cold one.

We begin the action a little beyond the halfway point in the first quarter. Immediately, we see James Harden come down the court in a semi-transition opportunity attempting to push the ball towards the rim. Austin Rivers initially stops him from getting where he wants, so the Rockets decide to ISO Harden on the left wing against Rivers. Due to Rivers’ smaller frame and lack of experience, Harden uses a basic technique. All Harden does here is get into Austin’s body with his left shoulder and then turn back to his right shoulder. As he does this, Harden anticipates the contact and throws his arms into Rivers’ arms to draw the foul. The whistle comes and the ball goes through the net for an and-one.

The issue for the Clippers isn’t anything that they did themselves. Harden initiates everything here. He pushes the ball up the floor and gets a defender he knows he can bully down on the low block. Harden just uses his size, weight, and lower center of gravity to his advantage. Then, he does what he does best; draw a foul and head to the line. Austin Rivers tries his best here and, for all intents and purposes, does a solid job of contesting the shot before fouling Harden. This is where a smarter or stronger defender would have either known what Harden’s move was going to be or not been bullied into the post to begin with. Live and learn.

A possession later, we get to see how Houston really works Harden into advantageous matchups. To start, J.J. Redick is guarding Harden, but Houston does a smart thing and runs a pick up to him in the form of Trevor Ariza. Because of this, Redick and Blake Griffin switch duties, and Redick takes Ariza while Griffin takes Harden. Knowing that he will struggle in the footwork department against Griffin, the Rockets send another pick to free Harden up – this time in the form of Clint Capela. This forces a switch where DeAndre Jordan is now the primary defender. And Harden goes to work. He throws a little lackadaisical between-the-legs dribble at Jordan before jab stepping quickly to his left to get Jordan off-balance. Once Jordan transfers his weight to the outside, Harden rises and fires from three. Splash.

Credit Houston and Harden here for recognizing the matchups. When they recognized that Redick was the main defender, they worked Harden into a screen game to generate a different defender. When that defender was someone of the athleticism of Griffin, they ran another screen to get Jordan onto The Bearded One. From there, it was all elementary. A few subtle moves, one jab step, and a three. Jordan clearly respected Harden’s dribble-drive game a lot, but perhaps it was too much. You want to force Harden to go right and take you off the dribble. You do not want him to set you up. Be proactive, not reactive.

This is just an example of Harden getting a call his way despite a heady defender being on him. Harden is the ball-handler running downcourt and gets matched up onto Redick. The first thing Houston does is clear out and let Harden ISO in the post against Redick. It’s sort of similar to the same thing they did with Austin Rivers earlier. Harden backs down Redick as best as he can, but Redick uses his technique and core strength to keep Harden at bay. But Harden feels that Redick’s left arm is on his own left arm. When Harden feels that, he turns immediately into Redick and draws the foul while sinking the and-one.

All told, it’s not like Redick plays this poorly. He stifles Harden pretty damn well to start and then forces Harden into a really tough shot. The only thing Redick does wrong is putting his left arm on Harden’s left arm and hoping that Harden didn’t notice. Redick even tries to throw his arms back as soon as Harden turns into him, but it’s far too late and the team pays the price for that move. Of all the guys who can defend him, Redick is probably the best bet to give Harden some trouble. He knows his moves, doesn’t outthink himself, and usually doesn’t foul him. This one instance did not go according to plan, though.

Late in the first quarter, the Clippers decide to go completely insane and deploy a bench lineup that lacks any reasonable chance at guarding James Harden. The only starter on the floor with the bench is Blake Griffin and he has to guard Montrezl Harrell here. Because of that, Paul Pierce draws the defensive job on Harden. The Rockets once again put Harden in an ISO spot and let him go to work against The Truth. Harden sizes up Pierce then explodes to the right with a power dribble. The second Pierce darts towards the restricted area to cut Harden off, Harden masterfully bounces into a stepback jumper that Pierce is too late to fully contest. Ball meets net and the Clippers lead shrinks to two.

Pierce plays this about as well as an advanced-age basketball player can. He tries to get low, forces Harden to his weaker hand, and then cuts off the driving lane. The problem with this is that Harden almost always loves to execute a stepback jumper when working to the right side. Scouting reports, if done properly, would have shown this. Unfortunately, the defense fails at working with that knowledge and gives Harden a really good look at the rim. Guys as good as him don’t miss this shot too often.

Late in the second quarter, we get an instance of where the Clippers failed to stop the ball and rotate responsibility properly. Harden dribbles across midcourt with DeAndre Jordan directly in front of him. Jordan is backpedaling quite a bit and Harden seeks to take advantage of that. Clint Capela is trotting down the court in front of Harden and begins to slow up directly in front of Lance Stephenson. For some reason, rather than stopping the ball or forcing Harden into a difficult shot, Jordan and Stephenson choose to switch. This gives Harden all the space he needs. The second the switch begins to take place, Harden launches a three and cuts the Houston deficit in half.

Miscommunication is a real problem here. Had Jordan and Stephenson communicated better, none of this happens. What should be done here is Jordan should attempt to corral Harden towards a more perimeter-based defender. Instead, by letting Harden dictate the flow and process, the Clippers let the Rockets get a reasonable look from long range for a guy who is red hot. Stopping the ball is a must here. The Clippers didn’t do it and their lack of communication doomed them. Team has to do better here. This one’s on Jordan. Don’t keep backpedaling. Attack the ball-handler. Force his hand rather than letting him force yours.

With roughly 11 on the shot clock, the ball finds its way into Harden’s hands. Redick is the primary defender here, and Houston proceeds to run him into a Dwight Howard screen. All season long the Clippers have chosen to play pick-and-rolls rather conservatively. Rather than hedging hard and forcing the ball-handler to give the ball up, the bigs have been playing back and giving them space in the mid-range area. This is a no-no with a player the caliber of James Harden. As he comes off of the screen, Harden gets downhill and squares up towards DeAndre Jordan. Due to Jordan’s retreating ways, Harden is wide open for a right-elbow jumper that he knocks down.

The new pick-and-roll defense does have its advantages, however it also has its disadvantages when you play against elite level scorers such as James Harden or Stephen Curry. Players who can both handle the ball and shoot well will give you problems if this is how you choose to attack them in the pick-and-roll. By not hedging and forcing Harden into a decision, the Clippers allow him to get off a wide open jumper that he’s more than capable of making. This is all the fault of scheme. Jordan should have played this higher up the floor, but this looks like a coaching decision more than a player decision.

Yet again, we see Harden get matched up against a bench unit that has no chance of guarding him whatsoever. Pablo Prigioni gets screened off of Harden and Josh Smith shifts his weight the wrong way. Rather than forcing Harden to the right, Smith tries to cut him off and this allows Harden to get back to his dominant left hand. From there, there’s zero rim protection. Paul Pierce attempts to rotate over and cut off the rim, but it’s to no avail and it ends in another and-one in Houston’s favor. The team plays this entire sequence poorly.

Everyone knows Harden wants to get left. By forcing him to his dominant hand, you’re allowing him to get into his comfort zone. All the help on this play is on the right side of the floor. Pierce and Wesley Johnson are on that side and could help on a Harden drive if Smith had correctly played it that way. By overplaying the screen and letting Harden get back to the left, Smith nullified anything the defense could do to help. Pierce isn’t a rim protector so him not forcing a miss isn’t shocking. The foul hurts, but this defensive effort is poor all-around – especially by Smith.

The entire bench unit is on the floor still and Harden uses that to his advantage once more. Wesley Johnson is the defender on Harden now and the Rockets run him into a Capela screen. In an effort to force Harden back to the right, Smith jumps to Harden’s left and tries to cut off the lane. However, this doesn’t work whatsoever. Harden jump cuts to the right, between Smith and Johnson, before finishing a tough layup just beyond the outstretched fingertips of Smith. This is another instance where Smith failed to do his job.

Playing Harden to his right is what you want to do; however, you must also recognize the situation as it unfolds. Smith is the only rim protector on the floor here and does a poor job of funneling him towards his own body. Smith lets Harden get back to the middle of the floor rather than stringing the play towards the baseline and it creates a problem. Harden waltzes into the paint for a layup and the Rockets stretch their lead out even more thanks to this blunder. These are the types of things that happen when you a play bench unit together that features three terrible perimeter defenders – i.e. Prigioni, Crawford, and Pierce.

To end the third quarter, James Harden knocks home a triple that pushes Houston’s lead up to 6 points. All that happens is Harden dribbles straight down the middle of the court and hoists a shot. He reads that Wesley Johnson is giving him way too much space, and that was all Harden needed to see. Johnson feels a potential screen from Capela and starts to sink just below the arc. You can’t do that. Fight over the screen. Stop the ball. It’s simple basketball. You cannot let a player just walk into a straight-on three-pointer. This was two games in a row a player did this to the team because they failed to understand who they were exactly playing against.

James Harden is one of the best players in the world today. By defending him as if he’s just some run-of-the-mill offensive player, the team opened themselves up to a world of pain. Whether you want to put this entire display on Doc Rivers for not giving Redick and Stephenson more time on Harden is entirely up to you. All that’s apparent here is that the team defended a premier offensive talent with their worst defenders a majority of the time. And, to no one’s surprise, the premier offensive talent absolutely destroyed the terrible defenders.

This isn’t to say that Austin Rivers or Wesley Johnson are terrible defenders. They’re good at what they can do. The issue was routinely putting guys like Prigioni and Pierce onto him, or just not understanding that you absolutely must stop the ball in semi-transition opportunities. This was a fundamental problem time and time again. No one knows how Harden would have done with Redick on him full-time, but it seems pretty certain that the team would have fared far better with that situation than they did with this one. The team must learn from tape like this.