But I have a soft spot for the visual Harden experience. He inspires a chess match unlike anything in the NBA. The high-volume step-back 3-pointer turned Harden into something unprecedented, or very close: a player who could score one each from anywhere.
On a lot of property, the Rockets no longer had to run plays for Harden – we no longer had to engage in what we knew as basketball. He started looking at Pix, one of the game’s fundamental building blocks, as a handicap.
“We used to talk about the screen as an escort for a double-team,” Houston’s GM, Daryl More, told ESPN last season. “Why even give the option to rescue?”
How were you defending such a player? Some teams claim an elite wing defender who can stick with one on Harden. Push him too hard, and you risk a 3-shot foul – the most efficient game result possible. Some teams – most notably the Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs – had the defender drape himself over Harden’s left shoulder, nearly climbing on his back, and forcing him down the rim towards Clint Capella.
Prior to this season, the teams began following the lead of the Denver Nuggets and implicated Harden when he crossed half the court. He had some success when both Russell Westbrook and Capella were on the floor – one non-shooter for not paying attention to the perimeter, another easily positioned near the basket. Houston traded Capella immediately.
The reality is that no plan can include the league’s best alpha ball handler. They are very good, they have a lot of shooting around. Show them a steady diet of anything, and they will separate it. Elite rescue can limit bleeding, but they are still bleeding.
If those ball handlers know that a trap is coming, and from where, the reeds come in handy. If the pressure comes quickly in the shot clock, the offense can drive three-four, five times. The ball can ping almost all the way and return to the superstar starting everything. Good defense can scramble through a few turns. Pull them through something else, and they usually break.
Defense has to mix things up, but every mix leans towards a certain flavor. This inclination may depend on many variables: supporting personnel on both sides, timing and score, coaching preferences.
But as I write in the context of a fight between Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, the right-leaning shot can be towards the amped-up pressure in the back half of the clock – the pressure that builds it so that the superstar surrenders the ball without time. Could. back. This is not frantic pressure for it. This is the aggression to make “everyone to defeat you” under time pressure, with Shot Clock acting as the sixth defender.
And this is how the Lakers have consolidated Harden and the Rockets in control of this series in Games 2 and 3, and Houston still scored 111.6 points per 100 possessions on those two losses. it’s a good thing! It would have been ninth or 10th in the regular season. He had 60 points in 17-of-35 shooting combined in those games. But those numbers are manageable for the Lakers now that Frank Vogel has loosened up for offense by mobbing his centers for LeBron James and Anthony Davis. (Playoff Rajon Rondo soaked those center minutes, which is huge.)
Much of the discussion around this series has been about how lineup adjustments can provide oxygen for the Lakers’ half-undrafted offense, but this team grounded their defense throughout the season. The Lakers ranked third in points allowed per point, and ranked No. 1 in the Western Conference. Lebron bought in from day one, and the rest of the team followed suit. Credit Vogel for reinforcing this culture, and Vogel and his staff for devising a killer game plan after Houston snatched the opener.
I can imagine what the Lockers mantra might be to defend it: Protect a pass. If you can get that first catch-and-shoot opportunity out of the trap, you have a chance to reset your defense and force Houston to make a worse shot – often without further involvement from Harden .
The Lakers’ dream defensive possession looks like this:
The Lakers are set to go to that first Eric Gordon. As Trap theaters, Kyle Kuzma places himself between Gordon and Robert Covington – ready for either option:
Follows two more passes, each easier and more predictable than last time. Possession dies.
Lakers spring that traps the shot clock with 13 – just enough time for Harden to return to the play. Instead, he sits in one place for about 10 seconds – across the floor from the action, 30 feet from the rim.
Once he relinquished control, Hardik often turned to half-court. The Lakers’ late-trap strategy bets on Harden’s inaction.
(This is not limited to the Lakers trap. With Game 3 slipping, Harden faded from three straight empty Houston possessions stretching 6: 10-5: 10 of the fourth quarter. He never touched the ball in the middle. First and third, he passed after passing half the court and never touched it again – or ever once the shot clock ticked past 18. Westbrook was on the bench. Finished with a property: one Covington Turnover; Kuzma blocks a flop Jeff Green. Attempts near the rim, and Green throws the ball out of bounds.)
Here is game 2 one, when the Lakers get into the shot clock with 14:
(Austin River lost the ball; it went to Covington, who heated up a disappointing 3-pointer after the shot ended.)
Danuel House Jr. shines in the middle as an outlet, but the Lakers are prepared for that cut. Their curves at the bottom of the trap have been on point – immediate, precise, decisive. Davis is everywhere. Kuzma is defending at a career-best level, and is for most of the bubble. LeBron is in animal mode, moving around with ferrous and oblique shots in the basket. (Seriously: I can hear and feel turbo footsteps through Lebron’s fast, television. My God.)
An interesting wrinkle from Game 3: The Lakers sent a lot into their net – including the first clip – from Harden’s left side. It may have happened. Harden operated a lot on the right side of the floor, leaving more defenders to his left. But this pushed Harden towards his weaker hand, and the right bank. He can still do damage there, of course. It quickly downloaded to where the trap would originate, and removed the other direction:
Rockets can sometimes be adjusted by clearing the right corner, so there are no helpers nearby:
But it should be comforting to know where Harden is likely to leave, and to arrange the chess pieces so that the path leads sideways – shrinking his passing options.
When the Lakers’ net came from Harden’s right – and when he saw it early – he left with his usual position:
(I’m not sure what JR Smith has done to earn these occasional bursts of play time, but I think he’s bound to hit the shot at some point.)
The Lakers have executed their net well regardless of the location. He doubled Harden combined in Games 2 and 3, and after tracking from ESPN Stats and Information gave up just one point per possession after those nets – well below Houston’s overall average. He doubled Harden twice in the second half of Game 3 compared to the first 24 minutes, and gave the Rockets a slight advantage of 0.54 points per possession in that half, according to ESPN stats and information. Tracking data from the second spectrum is a little less clueless about how the Lakers get entangled, but makes it widely effective.
Some of LA’s (rare) mistakes have gone to waste, ending rot well after the Lakers got stuck and reset their defenses with the Rockets offense:
The mesh works (from the left side), and behind it are the initial curves Chef kiss Gorgeous When you are well covered in the midrange with five on the shot clock, you don’t need another defender flying over the rivers. Shoot him a floater!
Please note Kuzma’s mini-rotation at the beginning of Laxman’s scuffle: he runs rivers from a 3-point arc but does not chase him into the lane. He is confident that Markieff will be Morris, and will take a U-turn to smooth the house in the right corner:
This is such a great little piece of defense. The Lakers’ after-trap rotation is full of goodness.
This is a more traditional trap – that is, against a pick end-roll – but Davis toggles almost the same rotation between Westbrook and Covington:
Again: Davis is everywhere.
Still, sometimes Harden is going to beat you. He is good, and when Westbrook is on the bench, the court is open:
The Lakers feel they cannot see this form; He mostly saved it for the second half in Game 3. There are some adjustments in Houston. The Rockets can set the pikes in the half court for Harden, and give him a long runway. A hearty, pre-trap pre-attack will help to the extent that it is possible to stop the trap. Switching the property’s starting points – left, right, middle – can prevent the layers from getting into rhythm.
If Houston is determined to make some pick-and-roll runs, it could tear Harden’s screener apart – Westbrook is useful in that role – and some Screen-A to catch the Lakers’ second defender – Expose screener functions.
The big issue is Westbrook’s up-down performance. He was one of Houston’s major trap breakers in the regular season, cutting open space and zooming for layoffs. Those layouts are tough against James and Davis’ rim protection; Westbrook cannot force it when both of them are challenging him and kick-out passes are available. (Harden also took some close shots on easy passes.)
Houston is sitting in Houston minus-19 in 18 minutes – and Westbrook is playing – in the last two matches after winning those minutes in the game. 1. Two of Westerbrook’s five have come in those 18 minutes, and Westerbrook game – and misses in the basket – ignite the Lakers’ disastrous fast-break machine.
(There is really no statistical evidence to back this up, but I feel this sometimes exasperated that if the Rockets ever miss the presence of a screen and dive center, it’s during these Westbrook-only minutes. Westbrook comes in well at one. Spread pick-and-roll, but the Rockets don’t have a screen-setter that presents any vertical danger. Many of these aimless passing through the Westbrook-only property perimeter Passes before someone strikes a set defense — one. Westbrook has a harder time than beating his defenders as they wait for him in the paint.)
The Lakers have also won (slightly) Westbrook-Harden tandem minutes. Houston is a plus-9 so far in 42-Harden-minutes. The first and third quarters are late when Westbrook and Lebron rest at the same time – leaving Harden to face the LeBron-less Lakers. Look at those minutes. It would be difficult for Houston to advance this series to six or seven matches if they did not win them.
House’s status for Game 4 is unclear, but it appears that Covangton is to go after his collision with Davis late in Game 3. Rockets cannot afford to dig any depth in their rotation. House’s absence slammed the door for more Ben Macklemore minutes, and LeBron is getting Macklemore every chance. If Macklemore plays, LeBron relaxes. (Lakers fans will compete their team correctly, missing an important starter Avery Bradley.)
This game 4 is a test of Houston’s will. The Rockets had chances to win Games 2 and 3, and both lost. Which can be a morale drop. Will they fight, or fight? The offenses usually come in handy for the Rockets, but the Lakers are fighting them for everything.