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Explain One Play: Warriors attack and guard James Harden

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Examining how the Warriors offense picked on James Harden, and also harassed him into a terrible offensive night in the blowout win in Rockets-Warriors Game 1.

"Lil Based God has ordered me to reject you."
"Lil Based God has ordered me to reject you."
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Here at Explain One Play Inc., we try to stick to clips from competitive parts of games, and today that restricted us to part of the first quarter. Quite a methodical crushing of the Rockets.

The Houston Rockets tried to defend Curry using a combination of (1) grabbing and hitting Curry whenever possible; (2) having Patrick Beverley play tough physical man-on-man defense; and (3) the new league standard defense of switching assignments on screens.

We'll see how the Warriors tried to counterattack by picking on James Harden in the offense.

Wrestling and Thumping Curry

But first, here's a funny clip of (1) and (2) above:

Notice how Beverley picks up Curry as he gets to three feet behind the arc. No, really, he almost literally picks him up: he gets his weight low, grabs Curry's arms and doesn't let go until Curry shoves him away and uses Festus Ezeli as a screen to get away.

Then, as Curry gets away, Clint Capela reaches out and grabs Curry's chest as he goes by. Curry fends him off with a sweep of the right arm. (WAX ON WAX OFF!) Then as Curry rounds Josh Smith, Smith uses a solid butt whump to knock Curry to the floor. This is not even unusually rough treatment for Curry, except unusually it did draw a whistle for a foul.

Attacking Harden: Force Switch, Screen Off-ball

James Harden is the Rockets' offense, possibly/probably by his choice. This means he conserves energy on defense. When you directly challenge him by, say posting up Harrison Barnes on him, he's a reasonably competent defender. Where he's weak is off the ball, where he has trouble staying focused, fighting through screens, and helping on other players. You can see the Warriors baked that into the offensive plan.  Harden, of course, does not guard Curry, but with the Switching Defense, if Curry sets a screen on Harden, he will have to guard Curry. Then Curry can run off-ball using screens and shed Harden.

Here is a simple example. Harden begins guarding Andre Iguodala (good choice, as Andre's jump shot is missing in action) and Beverley, of course, is on Curry.  So Curry steps up and sets a back screen on Harden and Andre cuts to the hoop.  Beverley HAS to switch, even if it's not the scheme, because otherwise Andre will have an alley-oop dunk.  Now Curry is guarded by Harden. But instead of isolating Curry on Harden, watch what happens.

Well, Curry gets a screen from Andrew Bogut to get to the corner. Harden gets bumped by his own teammate and number one fan, Dwight Howard, then dies on Andrew Bogut's screen.  In the mean time, Draymond drives to the hoop. If Harden sticks around to contest the drive, then Draymond can pass to the left corner for a Curry 3. As it turns out,  Harden doesn't challenge the drive and -- worse -- as Dwight is pointing out the drive to him, Harden screens Dwight for Draymond. Ugly uncooperative defense.

Here's another example of the recipe. Harden starts on Andre, Beverley on Curry. Watch and see how Curry screens Harden, then takes advantage of Harden's lack of defensive awareness.

Curry screens Harden and therefore gets him on a switch. Then Curry makes the unorthodox move of using Harden's spacey teammate, Michael Beasley, as a screen on him.  Curry rubs by Beasley, and Beasley -- not known for his intense defensive focus -- recoils without looking, almost like he thought Harden was giving him a hug and he was not having that.  Curry flares out for a three. Harden does not fight through the friendly fire screen. More ugly, uncooperative defense. Three points.

Defending Harden

The Warriors defended Harden quite well. Most importantly, Harden had NO free throws, which would be a lot like Curry having no threes. Harden is an outstanding shooter and driver, but it's his foul-invention and free throw shooting that put his efficiency through the roof.

Today's scheme is pretty similar to what the Warriors did last year (see Guardin' Harden: The New Warriors Defense). After the game, the Warriors listed the basic principles:

Plus:

  • force Harden to drive right
  • have a big man ready to play goalie behind the primary defender
Here's an example of the fine defense played on Harden.

The Rockets try to get Curry to defend Harden by having Beverley screen Klay Thompson. They temporarily get Curry to jump out and show on Harden, but when Harden doesn't attack right away, he calmly switches right back with Klay. I like that. Many teams have started dabbling in Switching defenses, but the Warriors are the leaders in this movement, and they're at the next level where they can make the right switches and UNSWITCHES.

Klay is a little off-balance, but he overplays Harden to force him right. He also keeps his arms straight up the whole drive, and jumps away from him to avoid the foul.

Notice also Festus Ezeli comes over to play goalie on Harden in case he gets past Klay. As Harden sees the mess waiting at the basket, he pulls up and tries a tricky floater and misses.

Final Thoughts

The biggest outcome of Game 1, of course, was Stephen Curry's injury. Let's hope it's much improved by Monday. Here's the play where it happened:

The Warriors did not have a particularly good shooting day, and of course only had one half of Curry. It was still a blowout.  The Rockets can play better, but they will have to overcome some serious team mistrust to pull together to execute a team adjustment in offense (possibly playing bigger with Donatas Motiejunas, and featuring more post play by Howard, which might cause foul trouble for the Dubs bigs) and defense (better switches).