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Warriors at Rockets, NBA Playoffs 2015: Golden State's new defense against Houston and Harden

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We break down the new Warriors defensive scheme against James Harden and the Rockets, introduced in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

Harden versus sneaky Warriors double team in Game 3
Harden versus sneaky Warriors double team in Game 3
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Harden in Games 1 and 2

Okay, everyone knows that James Harden went insane in Games 1 and 2.  The Warriors scheme was to play Harden straight up with Klay Thompson, drive him off the three point line, don't foul him and force him to make contested two point jumpers. The scheme worked wonderfully, but as documented by Strauss, Harden shot much better than expected from the long-inefficient-two range and after long solo dribbling excursions:


The New Warriors Defense Part 1: New Defenders

The W's decided that they needed to try something new. It went without saying that the Warriors would try to try other defenders on Harden. Here is a quick chart of the first 17 Rockets possessions marking who was guarding Harden.

  1. On a broken play, Klay guards Harden, but falls. Andrew Bogut covers Harden from paint.
  2. Draymond Green covers Harden at top of the key.
  3. Harrison Barnes covers Harden on the inbounds play.
  4. Harden long pass in early offense to blocked shot.
  5. Green covers Harden on wing.
  6. Barnes picks up Harden high above the key.
  7. Sideline out of bounds play for Jason Terry.
  8. Dribble handoff Howard to Trevor Ariza.
  9. Barnes picks up Harden at midcourt during early offense. Harden rims out a midrange pullup.
  10. Barnes again on Harden. Fake pindown screen by Terry leads to a touch pass to an absurdly athletic dunk by Dwight.
  11. Josh Smith on the left wing tries a very long skip pass to Ariza in the right corner. Ariza saves it to Dwight Howard who gets a close charging foul.
  12. Barnes on Harden. Harden sets a pindown screen for Ariza, gets the ball back.
  13. Smith posts up Green, and is fouled. Barnes on Harden who stands up high spacing.
  14. Harden gets it at the top of the key, takes a stepback two which misses. Howard gets board and dunks.
  15. Terry-Howard pick and roll, nice short bank shot from Terry.
  16. Ariza misses transition corner 3.
  17. Klay picks up Harden, fouls him.
So you can see that the Warriors mixed it up. This makes sense from the point of view of keeping Harden uncomfortable, as well as the advantage that Green and Barnes have longer wingspan than Klay. Occasionally Klay picked up Harden and Andre Iguodala took a turn later.  This did seem to give Klay a bit more energy on offense, as he played a pretty active passing game. His shot still seemed off.

The New Warriors Defense Part 2: Secret Double Teams

Okay, here is the real sauce.

As I pointed out in the breakdown of the Wild Ending of Game 2, the surprise double-teaming Harden worked well at the end of the game, and it was likely the W's would try some kind of double teaming. But as many pointed out, Houston's typical response to double teaming Harden is to spread out, have Harden pass out of the double, and the team passes to the open man until Dwight gets a lob dunk. So a Clippers-style blitz of straight double teaming Harden seems like a questionable strategy, as well as being completely out of character for the Warriors -- they almost never double teamed a perimeter player during the Ron Adams era.

So what happened instead?  Let's watch tape and find out.

Part 2a. Sideline Harden

I'm going to just let this video run without comment to see if you can see what the defensive scheme is.

Can you see it?  If not, take a second look, but ask yourself, how come Jason Terry is so open in the left corner?  I'll wait...

...

Okay. If you count up, the Warriors are playing every Rocket man-to-man except Jason Terry in the left corner. His man should be Bogut, who instead is wandering under the basket. Is he just going on walkabout for kicks? No, he is guarding the near low post to prevent Harden from driving by Draymond Green. This allows Harden's man to play him tight for the stepback, but also offers containment for his drives. In this case, Harden recognizes that Terry is open in the opposite corner and makes good read and a very tricky skip pass look easy. Klay rotates to Jason Terry, Curry rotates to Ariza and Ariza makes a 3 under pressure.

Here is a similar setup. There is an initial action where Harden sets a pindown screen for Ariza, and gets the ball back on the right wing at about 0:09 in the following video. Barnes will be the primary defender. But what do you expect to be waiting for Harden at the near low post? And where do you expect a Rocket to be open?

Roll tape...

If you guessed that Bogut would be waiting like a big Harden-Fly-Trap, you were right. Draymond helps cover Dwight behind Bogut. Curry has to zone both Terry and Josh Smith.  Smith makes Curry's job easier by wandering around aimlessly in the paint when Terry tells him to clear out. Terry goes to occupy the open corner and Harden tries another rainbow skip pass to the opposite corner. If you didn't believe how hard a pass that is before, Curry proves it by tipping it off Terry for a turnover.

Final Exam

In the following clip, Harden will get the ball on the left wing. Your final exam questions:

  1. Where will the Warriors put a second man to contain Harden's drive?
  2. And when Ariza sets up in the far right corner, which Warrior will go to cover him closely?
  3. Extra credit: what is Harden trying to do with his pass?
Watch tape to see if you were right.


Answers:
  1. The Warriors put Green on the near low post block as a goalie to stop Harden from driving.
  2. NOBODY will cover Ariza when he goes to the far corner. They will dare Harden to make the long skip pass. Technically, Curry is zone covering Ariza and the wing shooter on the weak side.
  3. I don't know either.  I think he was trying to lob it over everyone to Howard, but that's really not available. To be fair, Harden has Jones cutting across the lane yelling for the ball, Howard yelling for the ball, Ariza running around the weak side looking open.  It takes an inspired tap out by Howard to salvage the possession.
The Rockets seem completely flummoxed by this defense and never quite figured out a counter.  The Warriors overload the strong side post and the Rockets have trouble finding the open man, and in Game 3, the open man had trouble hitting open shots!

Part 2b. Top of the Key Harden

We just covered the scheme when Harden is on one side of the court. The new Warriors Harden Rules have to look different when Harden is up the middle on top of the key.

Here's an example when Harden facing up Green at the top of the key.  See if you can spot the scheme.


As you saw, Barnes ended up doubling Harden when he gets to the paint.  Barnes left Josh Smith in the corner and dared Harden to find the open man, make the pass and for Smith to shoot over a rotating Curry or Barnes.

Another example. Harden will end up at the top of the key with Barnes guarding him. Harden will survey the scene and take a long stepback 2 over a long Barnes contest.  Notice how Green appears to be cheating into the paint off of Smith, Bogut has a foot in the paint, and even Curry and Klay are almost in the paint. So no matter which side Harden drives, there is a high post swiper and a low post big waiting to come over.

Here Harden comes around a curl at the right elbow so he gets Andre on his back driving down the lane. And there he meets...

...Draymond Green in the lane. Notice how Green does not make any attempt to guard Harden or his screener on the high pick. He stands at the high right post waiting for Harden to come around the corner, where he meets him in the lane. Harden has to choose between dumping off to the roll man, or making a very difficult finish over Green.

Final Thoughts

On the Warriors side, it is interesting to think about where this defensive adjustment came from. It's a pretty sophisticated scheme to pull out at this late date. But it's possible because it's not truly new. The W's used the 2A sideline version of this defense against Anthony Davis at the elbow (see our breakdown of the Anthony Davis chess match), where there was always a goalie at the low post stopping AD's drives.  This kind of defense requires an intelligent defender zoning the weak side, and a lot of communication across the defense. Luckily, the W's have the unity and skill on defense to pull this off.

It will be very interesting to see if HOU can make some adjustments to combat this new look that the Warriors defense is throwing at Harden.

I don't see easy ways for HOU to punish the 2A side version of the double team. HOU could swing it around the top and swing it back to force the W's to stack one side of the court, then shift over to the other side and generally cause chaos.

HOU may try to keep Harden in the middle of the floor, as 2B looks easier to game plan against... in theory if Harden drives the lane, he should have a short pass kickout to whoever's man is doubling him.

HOU could try to give Harden more catch-and-shoot opportunities (though he seems to shoot better when he's been dribbling) or try to get him the ball in motion (Howard has done some dribble-pitch moves on the perimeter, but they don't seem smooth; they could pass him the ball off curls, etc, like in the last video of 2B.

And using the Anthony Davis analogy, HOU could use Harden as a screener with Klay or Curry's man to get a smaller defender on him and then hope for Game 1/2 magic.

It's pretty clear that that W's are going to win the series, but HOU can still be dangerous. If they can get their offense more functional, that will lead to fewer transition points and more set defense against GSW, which will lead to more transition for HOU, etc. It's a virtuous cycle. But they will have to bring their A Game to Game 4, since Game 3 was an example of the virtuous cycle working for the W's.

And I have a preconception of McHale as being an uncreative and inflexible coach who doesn't get the most out of his personnel. If he can make scheme changes in Game 4 to beat the new Harden Rules, I will have to reconsider my opinion!

For more on Saturday's game, check out our Warriors-Rockets Game 3 storystream.