What James Harden did to Utah's jazz through two eruptions goes back to his greatest humiliation: the collapse of Harden and the collective disintegration of Houston against the San Antonio Spurs in the semi-finals of the conference of 2017.
Harden eliminated the Spurs in the first game of this series – a 27-point Rockets victory that seemed to announce that Houston was the main threat to the hegemony of the Golden State Western Conference. San Antonio has won four of the next five games – the last three without Tony Parker and the third without Kawhi Leonard.
The Spurs won this game in Houston by 39 points. Harden finished with 10 points on two shots of 11 and six turnovers before escaping. For months, he could not discuss the game with his closest confidants. They would not dare to approach the subject.
"It was like when you were a kid and you saw your parents arguing, nobody would ever want to talk about it," says Daryl Morey, Houston's general manager. "Nobody could treat him." Gregg Popovich, coach and president of San Antonio, approached Morey after the match to congratulate him for his season in Houston and express his astonishment at what had just happened. "I do not know what happened," recalled Morey, Popovich told him. "It was strange."
Houston's brain trust attributed the bankruptcy to the fatigue brought on by the pursuit of Harden's most wanted player, encouraged by Mike D's famous rotations.
Harden was surely tired. He changed his diet and fitness after this series. But the Spurs also unveiled a defense model of Harden that would spread in the league. It was simple: when Clint Capela chose Harden, Capela's man had to stand near the hoop and watch for Harden.
They would not change. They would not be trapped, exposing an easy pass to Capela. They would meet Harden in the restricted area and bet that they could at least disrupt the layups and lob passes. They would impose on him an indecision. They knew that Harden would not accept the blows they gave him; floating bodies and long 2 were verboten in Houston. It worked.
It was the lowest point of Harden's career. He turned it into a turning point – the catalyst of reinvention that occurred so gradually, piece by piece, you had hardly noticed that Harden was becoming a completely different player.
After this Spurs series, Harden added a float. If the higher defenses were to concede this shot, Harden should take it.
This season he has mastered it. Harden has tried more than twice as many floats as a season ago, and he's touched nearly half, according to Cleaning The Glass – an elitist figure.
The next step was more radical: eliminate the need for a screen. "We used to talk about the screen as an escort for a double team," says Morey. "Why even give the defense the option?"
Harden was already a very good player of isolation, but he should push further the calculation, beyond what everyone had dreamed of making the game of basketball – the basic game of basketball almost from the fishing basket – obsolete. Step back 3 – an isolation that is worth three points as it passes, accounting for about 40% of the time this season.
Harden drained 240 triples back in 2018-19. Stephen Curry led the league in total 3 with between 261 and 286 for three consecutive seasons from 2012-13 to 2014-15. To make 3 points was revolutionary four seasons ago. Doing so many steps back was not something that existed in the brains of the NBA.
The threat of the defenders back forced the defenders to support Harden 10 meters from the edge. This made them easy to pick.
Harden had distorted mathematics and opened up new possibilities in Houston. Instead of having the Capela screen around the 3-point arc, the Rockets can now place it at the dunker's location – along the baseline, at the edge of painting – at the beginning of possessions. It does not seem important, but talking to opposing players and coaches has changed everything.
The pick-and-roll lob dunk is a dance with complex timing. The ball handler must wait until his target is positioned. This delay gives the defense a chance to catch up. Any hiccups in the cadence – any miscommunication – and the window for the lob closes.
Placing Capela instead of dunker can do without these 30 feet of prelude. He is already there, his feet planted, ready to pile up.
Opponents have been confronted with this strange new geometry. As Tim MacMahon explained, the Bucks came out better with an exaggerated variant of the Spurs method. Several teams – including Utah in this series – have imitated him: climbing over Harden's left shoulder to make him take a step back and force him to the right. Place Capela's man in front of the edge and hope to convince Harden to turn into floating bodies – or to deflect any lob pass.
Note the three Houston shooters installed to the left of Harden. In a way, it complicates the life of Brook Lopez; If he's away from Capela to barricade the edge, there's no teammate behind him to take Capela.
But the Bucks probably did not bother this alignment. Riding with his right hand then passing on the left side is one of the hardest passes for Harden – as is the case for many left-handers. This requires a less natural throwing motion – almost a setback. Harden does not get as much speed on these passes, nor does he throw them with his usual precision:
This is the only passage that Harden hesitates a little to do. He will see it and opt for something else. Watch as Chris Paul is opened on the left side of this Houston win in Game 2:
There is no chance that Harden will not see Paul. He's rather trying a floater, and despite the tremendous improvements he's made, this shot is still the best scenario for any team defending Harden in this style (and probably any).
Houston has its players lined up on this possession in a way that almost guarantees that passing to Paul will be the only easy available. Capela is in the dunker on the left; Paul is the only shooter on this side. Paul's defender Ricky Rubio is responsible for blocking Harden's pass at Capela as Derrick Favors enters Harden Road. Defenders on the right side of the ground can stay at home.
Favors does a good job staying close to the edge and staying up to the last possible second. He does not reveal anything. He forces the decision to Harden.
The Jazz bet that Harden will not pass that pass, or that he will throw it softly enough for the defense to recover.
Houston can unlock a more comfortable left-to-right laser for Harden by dragging Capela on the paint to the right dunker point:
Rudy Gobert turns away from Capela to get rid of Harden, and the closest defender to help Capela suppress Capela is naturally on the safe side. Harden's address to PJ Tucker, which counts 6 out of 12 players in turns 3 of this series.
Houston has two shooters on the side of the helper instead of one. This should make the Utah missions a little less stressful: Jae Crowder slips out of Tucker, and Donovan Mitchell shifts between Tucker and Eric Gordon – "zoning up". Once Harden passes his pass, Mitchell should probably sprint to Tucker, force him to drive or throw an extra pass to Gordon, and hope another man from the Jazz group will pass behind him.
Instead, Mitchell sticks to Gordon. It's a common theme: Mitchell has been awful on the side of the help. He fails to be heard when he should and hangs in a no man 's land when he has to make his way to an open type.
Even more frightening: Houston seems to have found a basic way to trigger Harden's favorite passes and gushing fighters wide open.
It's just naughty. Capela is in the right place, with only one shooter on that side. The guy who keeps this lone gunner must help Capela, and there is no one to help him.
Houston has not only discovered this alignment in the Utah series. Here is the excerpt from the Rockets game in Milwaukee last month:
Milwaukee has fared better than Utah. Look where Lopez is when Harden gets up: at the center of the block / circle load block, within reach of both, hinder Harden's lay-up and get a finger on any Capela lob.
Look how far away Gobert is when Harden has barely crossed the line:
Gobert's panic forced Rubio to make an earlier and more urgent rotation, leaving him several miles away from Danuel House Jr. when Harden slung the ball.
With Lopez tied to the hoop, Giannis Antetokounmpo can stay between Capela and Tucker. He covers this distance until Tucker in a stride.
Houston relied on this configuration – Capela on the right, a shooter flanking him – more against Utah. Harden manipulates geometry to produce almost anything he wants. Watch it at the very beginning of this clip so that Tucker gets up from the corner. Harden knows that Thabo Sefolosha will follow Tucker, paving the way for a lob for Capela; Only a sensational reading of Sefolosha saves Utah:
If the Jazz continues to force Harden to his right, Gobert must do a better job by holding the line – and standing near the basket – until Harden is about to release the ball.
Utah has only a few other options. They could send some help to the left side of the ground, but this seems impractical. They have another plan, and they've already flashed it in game 2. Watch the pointer for house 3 again, but watch out for Rubio – keeping the house early – just when Harden starts his workout :
He points to the house. Specifically, he tells Joe Ingles to get away from Harden and take House. Ingles do it too late. Rubio pulls the same button – too late:
Ingles and Mitchell nearly did it here, while Game 2 was already out of control:
Utah could try this gambit again. Also: Look Inglés and Gobert barking one after the other after Harden 's setback. If I had to guess, I would say that Inglés is angry at Gobert for locking the restricted area and jumping on Harden's float – leaving the glass naked. Gobert responds by mimicking Harden's floating motion: What am I supposed to do? Let him shoot without being challenged?
Harden has jazz rocked. He had made them tremble even before the show began. After the second game, Rubio said that some players "do not buy 100%" of Quin Snyder's strategy to defend Harden. Perhaps he was thinking of pieces like the one in which Ingles had failed to break away from Harden and the house.
This is the hour of the playoffs. Do not miss these games.
Saturday (HE hours)
• Bucks-Pistons | 20h | ESPN
• Rockets-Jazz | 22:30. | ESPN
• Celtics-Pacers | 13h | ESPN
• Warriors-Clippers | 15:30. | ESPN
But all of Jazz's players have screwed up parts of Utah's refitted layout. This can happen when you defend in style for 82 games and you revise it for a playoff series.
Utah players are now finding themselves in unknown positions, with unknown responsibilities. Houston aggravates the confusion by moving the pieces of chess. They will not abuse this Capela-on-the-right configuration. They will swing everything – Capela's position, the location of their three shooters, where Harden begins his training.
It is tempting to say that Utah should abandon the gadget "force Harden right" and defend it. Rubio and Sefolosha showed a glimpse of that in the second match. But what does "directly" mean even with Harden? This would usually mean some sort of normal adjustment to pick-and-roll systems – a trap or a hard hedge.
But what is the adjustment when there is no choice? Maybe he just plays Harden, chest to chest. Is it going to accomplish something? Will it make it easier to stay in front of him? Probably not.
What do you do when he gets to the first line of defense? Some scouts suggest staying at home with the shooters and "let Harden take his part" – the same remedy you hear for Antetokounmpo. But Antetokounmpo is a fragile shooter. You can play him. You can not do that with Harden. He will be at the edge almost every time.
Maybe Utah can play it right at the beginning, make him expend energy by dancing with the ball, and then shading it very late in the timer. Hurray?
You need incredible head-to-head defensemen to face Harden without giving in to a 3-step parade and layups: long, fast, smart wings. The likely opponent of Houston in the next round has a few. Compete against a team like this, and Houston could return to a heavier attack in screens, including the quick-fire double screens that Antoni loves.
In the meantime, Utah should make Harden work more on defense; the Jazz can isolate it against Mitchell when they wish it. If they are lucky, they may be attracting Harden into a bad problem.
Utah may not find a solution. The Spurs created a master plan for the league two seasons ago. Harden tore it up.