These James Harden double-teams are not unprecedented, but they do put Russell Westbrook in a spotlight
If Westbrook is a true co-star, he will find a way to deter defenses from doing this so often against the Houston Rockets
James Harden is an all-time great player. These days, this has to be said, first and foremost, before any criticism against him or his game can be levied, because far too often it's the other way around. Before people -- myself included -- talk about the incredible talent of a guy who could legitimately average 40 points a game this season, we'll talk about things like the video below as though his masterful manipulation of officials should be the first thing listed in his Hall of Fame bio.
So let it be said.
James Harden is an ALL-TIME GREAT player.
He is also, indeed, a master manipulator. On the court, he has an uncanny ability to make officials believe they've seen something they actually haven't, and now, with a certain postgame comment, he's trying to spread a double-teaming falsehood as truth.
The comment in question happened on the heels of the Houston Rockets' 122-119 loss to the Clippers this past Friday. Harden was awesome, posting 37 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds on just 16 shots -- some eight fewer attempts than the league-leading 24.2 shots per game he's averaging entering Tuesday.
Why didn't Harden get up his normal volume of shots? Because the Clippers wouldn't let him. With Houston shooters Eric Gordon and Danuel House sidelined, the Clippers weren't worried about Russell Westbrook and the other Rockets beating them with open 3-pointers and driving lanes, which afforded L.A. the opportunity to double-team Harden more freely than normal.
So this much is true. Harden saw a lot of double-teams, a handful of them 35-40 feet from the basket, and even when he wasn't being double-teamed, a second defender was always showing himself. What's absolutely not true is that this is some kind of unprecedented defensive maneuver that no other superstar has ever had to deal with, as was the picture Harden tried to paint.
For starters, this defense that Harden was facing, and will likely continue to face, is just as much an indictment on his teammates -- particularly Westbrook -- as it is an endorsement of his own scoring prowess. It's like when Steph Curry saw a box-and-one defense in last season's Finals. You TRULY never see that kind of defense in the NBA, but the Raptors didn't launch that kind of attack just because Curry can score. They launched it because they didn't believe anyone else could, at least not consistently.
Down the road, this will almost certainly be a problem for Houston, and for Harden, especially come playoff time. But we'll get back to that in a minute. For now, let's end, before it can actually get started, this claim that nobody in NBA history has ever seen the kind of double-teaming defense Harden is starting to see more and more.
My only wish is that one of the reporters in the pool would've asked the most obvious follow-up question: What about Stephen Curry? Or Damian Lillard? Or Kawhi Leonard? Or even second-year guard Trae Young, who gets doubled full court sometimes?
Harden's answer to that would've surely involved, in some capacity, the rationalization that most of the double-teams these other guys see come out of pick-and-rolls, when a second defender is brought to them, rather than said second defender simply leaving his man from outside the play and rushing out to double-team at the top of the key, which is what Harden is saying is happening to him.
To be clear, this IS happening to Harden. Just not all the time. And, yes, it has happened to other players before, if far less consistently.
Still, just like all the other superstar guards in this league, the vast majority of the double-teams Harden is facing are coming off pick-and-rolls, where the second defender is being brought into his space and is simply staying with him to force him to give up the ball rather than retreating back to his original man.
Exhibit A from the Mavericks game:
Exhibit B from the Clippers game:
In the next set of clips, you'll see the Clippers -- again it begins with a Rockets player setting a pick for Harden and bringing the second defender into the fold -- forming not necessarily a hard double-team, but more of a soft bubble around Harden, which he makes the right play against, passing to the corner for a wide-open 3:
For the record, here is Kawhi Leonard facing similar defense:
But these were in the Finals, you might say. Harden is seeing this defense in a random game in November. Well, so is Trae Young.
And Luka Doncic.
There's no need to be redundant, just yet, with clips of Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. We know they've both been seeing these types of defenses for years. It gave Lillard fits in the playoffs against New Orleans two years ago. Last year he saw it again against Denver and Golden State. Hard doubles. Consistent shading with a second defender. Encapsulating bubbles in transition.
But the Doncic clips are especially important. Doncic's game is very similar to Harden's, for starters. He means as much to Dallas as Harden does to Houston. His step-back is nearly identical. His handle isn't quite as tight, but it gets him anywhere he needs to go. If you don't double him, he's going to torch you as both a scorer and a passer.
Watch the clips again. As you can see, while technically a screener is in the vicinity and beginning to set a pick, the defenders are there to JUMP Doncic and swarm him back to half-court with a trap. These are not your normal show-and-retreat hedges or even soft doubles. This is not a second defender shading toward Doncic. This is a hard double out to 40 feet at the top of the key. It's a complete sell-out to get the ball out of Doncic's hands.
Where Harden's treatment differs -- not as often as he claims, but sometimes -- is when the second defender is either waiting for him at the top of the key even before a screener enters the picture, gravitates to him in semi transition, or, as you'll see in the clips below, leaves his man on the wing to pursue Harden at the top.
Again, to suggest this is the first time anyone has ever seen this kind of defense is preposterous. Watch Lillard in the clip below. He does get a screen from Jusuf Nurkic, but notice where the big man is positioned from the very start. He is locked on Lillard. This is a double-team from the get-go, and it continues until Lillard is forced to give the ball up.
Here's Curry getting doubled before he even crosses half court.
Again, I understand these are playoff games, but the defense is the defense. Never mind that the Clippers were doing this to Curry when Kevin Durant AND Klay Thompson were on the court. And therein lies the real difference in these situations: Harden is not surrounded by equally dangerous teammates. Defenses can spring these doubling tactics on him with relative impunity, which translates to Harden having to deal with this treatment far more often than other stars.
The Mavericks did it on almost every possession in the second half.
And it puts a giant spotlight on Russell Westbrook.
Yes, when Eric Gordon gets back in the lineup it will help. But Gordon's only shooting 28 percent from 3 this season. Defenses are still going to leave him, and anyone else on the Rockets' roster, if it means SOMEWHAT mitigating Harden's impact. Curry, for instance, has always had an all-time great release valve in Draymond Green, who dismantles defenses with a 4-on-3 advantage.
Clint Capela is not going to be that guy for Houston. Westbrook isn't going to be setting many small-small ball screens -- though that is something the Rockets can explore -- but as you can see in the following clip, defenses are still happily leaving Westbrook on the wing to shade toward Harden. This is how Westbrook HAS TO attack these openings:
That's an and-one for Westbrook, and when he attacks like that, he can punish defenses for doubling Harden and perhaps get them to stop doing it so much. But when Westbrook doesn't attack, or he's out of control and ineffective when he does, all he becomes is a 23 percent 3-point shooter that defenses are going to abandon to instead double Harden every single time.
Here the Clippers do exactly that with the game on the line:
As you can see, the Rockets didn't need a 3-pointer here. They were only down one. The Clippers doubled Harden, and Westbrook shot the ball with more than six seconds still on the clock, plenty of time to attack the lane and either pull up for a more makeable jumper, finish in the lane himself or get fouled, or draw help to kick to a better shooter.
Westbrook just jacking up a 3 is EXACTLY what the defense wants. He has failed to shoot even 30 percent from deep in five of the last six seasons. He simply has to make better decisions in these situations if the Rockets are going to be a true championship threat. He has to take the lanes that are provided to him and attack them. Punish them. Because the doubles on Harden are not going to stop, particularly come playoff time.
The bottom line here is that Westbrook does not strike true fear in defenses. We call him and Harden a "superstar duo" but that is deceiving. A true superstar duo is LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, or Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, where double-teams on one of them become very difficult because the other one can hurt you just as badly.
Westbrook is not going to hurt you anywhere near as badly as Harden will. In a lot of cases, he'll actually help you with a bad shot or an out-of-control drive/turnover. When Harden says he's never seen this kind of defense deployed in the NBA, he's wrong. But he's right in that we've probably never seen it deployed this consistently. And that's largely about the other Rockets.
If Gordon and House and Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers start knocking down a bunch of open 3s, maybe they'll think twice about devoting two guys to Harden. But those are role players. Danny Green can hit a hundred 3s and LeBron is still going to get double-teamed. Anthony Davis is the one who can make them think twice.
Westbrook has to be that guy for the Rockets. And for Harden. Because know this: While Harden might not have liked Chris Paul, he darn sure would like the 41.4 percent Paul is shooting from 3 this season. THAT would be a double-team deterrent. Paul getting into the lane and creating havoc in 4-on-3 situations would be a deterrent.
Westbrook HAS to make defenses pay for this. Consistently. If he doesn't, the Rockets, no matter how many regular-season wins they pile up, simply can't be considered a true contender.
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The Trail Blazer wasn't having any of it