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The Golden Breakdown: How the Warriors inflicted death by a thousand traps on James Harden and the Rockets

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The Warriors proved many people wrong by upsetting the Rockets, who were forced to deal with the endless traps and doubles that were thrown at their superstar.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After the Golden State Warriors’ 116-104 Christmas miracle over the Houston Rockets, Draymond Green was asked about their defensive gameplan going into the showdown against their old rivals. Green gave assistant coach Jarron Collins, who is in charge of the Warriors defense after taking over from defensive guru Ron Adams, plenty of deserved credit.

“I think Jarron has been doing a great job, especially today, of putting together a gameplan that we can stick to and be great at,” Green said. “You gotta give him a lot of credit for this win because that gameplan was f****** phenomenal today, and it don’t get much better than that. You gotta give our young guys credit — you can’t execute it much better than we did today.”

That specific gameplan Green was pertaining to involved a very prominent target on the Rockets’ back, one that took the form of their superstar who is perhaps the most polarizing figure in the NBA: James Harden. Love him or hate him (most Warriors fans certainly belong to the latter category), Harden — who is the undisputed scoring leader so far this season (38.1 points per game) — is arguably the deadliest scorer in the league, capable of getting his points in a variety of ways, including drawing contact (or perceived contact) and forcing the officials’ whistles, allowing him to go to the line and use his 87.5 percent free-throw percentage to get himself plenty of charity points.

While Harden is a prolific live-ball scorer — he leads the league in three-point makes (159) and three-point attempts (427) — he uses the threat of scoring from any point of the floor to throw opposing defenses into disarray, with possessions often ending up in him going to the line. Harden leads the league in free-throw makes (337), free-throw attempts (385), and free-throw attempts per game (12.4) — stats which paint a picture of a player who aims to score at all costs.

The gameplan to stop Harden is a classic example of something that is much easier said than done: do not reach in, contest his shots without making contact, and pressure him into misses without swiping down or hacking. It sounds simple enough for any NBA team to execute — until they realize that Harden already has put up more than 30 points and has already made his way to the line 10 times or more. Defending Harden is like trying to douse a house on fire with a spray bottle — it often becomes an exercise mired in futility, and the fire eventually becomes too wild to control.

More so than any other team in the league, the Warriors have had plenty of experience against Harden, and are more knowledgeable than most in terms of dealing with him, having faced him and the Rockets during the 2018 Western Conference finals and the 2019 Western Conference semifinals. The presence of defensive stalwarts such as Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant allowed the Warriors to go into their games against the Rockets armed with a high-pressure fire hose.

Iguodala and Durant have long departed, and Thompson has been sidelined with an injury. In their place are a ragtag bunch of inexperienced players and journeymen who are levels below the defensive capabilities of the dynasty Warriors’ wing defenders. There were plenty of reasons why most people — Warriors fans included — were bracing themselves last night for a seemingly inevitable Harden explosion and a Rockets blowout victory.

The quandary going into the game was clear as day: Who in this current Warriors roster could possibly lock down Harden one-on-one?

The answer, as the Warriors revealed last night, was that no single individual was capable of such a feat. In full recognition of that fact, the Warriors opted to throw double teams at Harden, forcing him to give up the ball and letting the Rockets decide what to do with a 4-on-3 situation that more or less eliminated Harden from the equation.

Take this possession, for instance, early in the first quarter:

Harden is isolated in the corner, with Green eventually choosing to help Glenn Robinson III trap Harden, which forces him to give up the ball. Harden without the ball in his hands and relegated to being a bystander is perhaps the best outcome a defense can hope for, especially if the person who decides to take the shot is shooting an abysmal 25.2 percent from beyond the arc.

(Yes, we’re talking about Russell Westbrook.)

To be fair to Westbrook, he came back with a near-perfect response to another Harden trap during this possession:

D’Angelo Russell leaves Westbrook alone to help Green enforce another double on Harden, and Harden gives the ball to Westbrook. To his credit, Westbrook doesn’t settle for a jumper and instead drives to the rim, taking advantage of the lane that was opened as a result of the trap. However, what should’ve been an easy layup for Westbrook is botched instead.

Westbrook missing those close-up shots further empowered the Warriors to ignore him like a red-headed stepchild. Once Harden got his hands on the ball, the Warriors focused on getting the ball away from him immediately, often leaving Westbrook or another lesser threat alone on the perimeter and daring them to take the shot.

At times, the Warriors weren’t able to double Harden, simply due to having to deal with him in transition. But the Warriors defense — Robinson, in particular — did an excellent job in trying to contain Harden’s drives without fouling.

As Robinson was able to do in the clip above, he checked off the necessary components to an excellent defensive possession against Harden: no reaching in, and pressuring him into a miss by going straight up without swiping down or hacking.

The scheme was by no means perfect. Players left alone as a result of the Warriors doubles would occasionally make them pay with a three, or Harden’s sheer brilliance allowed him to find cracks in the scheme and collapse the defense.

But perfection was never the goal in the first place. If the Warriors found something that gave Harden a hell of a time on the offensive end, they were going to stick to it if it provided them with the best chance at competing with the better and more talented team.

It didn’t work all the time, but when it did, the result was a marvelous display of execution that belied the reputation of these Warriors as one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA.

Again, the Warriors force Harden out of the equation, and once he ceases to be an immediate threat (helped in huge part by him becoming a bystander after giving up the ball), the Warriors rotate to plug the holes created by the double and successfully garner a stop.

How dedicated were the Warriors to this plan? Very much so — to the point that in the second half, it seemed as if they doubled down (no pun intended) on their soft traps and doubles on Harden.

With the help of a robust offensive effort by the five Warriors starters — all of which scored in double figures — the Warriors defense was able to limit the Rockets by targeting their main source of power. The doubles, the traps, and the timely rotations all led to the Warriors putting up an excellent defensive rating of 100.0 — a rating made even more impressive by the fact that the Rockets had an offensive rating of 114.3 going into last night’s game, which ranked third in the league.

Perhaps the main takeaway from this game is the fact that the Rockets did not know what to do with a 4-on-3 advantage whenever Harden was doubled. He would pass out of the traps to a teammate, who would either shoot the wide-open three or try to attack the basket and make plays through kick-outs or drop passes to a big.

This reminds me of the same way that opponents would trap Stephen Curry in the pick-and-roll, and how Curry would deal with it by passing to the short roller, who was put into the position of deciding how to attack the 4-on-3 advantage created by the trap on Curry. More often than not, the roll man would make the correct decision, and it made the prospect of trapping Curry a risky proposition.

The Rockets tried such a tactic during the 2019 Western Conference semifinals:

At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, there is one key difference between how the Rockets approached the 4-on-3s versus the way the Warriors approached it in the clips above. Whoever Harden passed it to often could not make the correct reads, make the right judgment, or make plays for everyone else on the floor.

Simply put, the Rockets didn’t have a Draymond Green to know what to do in those situations.

Thirty-two down, 50 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.