The Jazz used a radical defensive strategy on James Harden that backfired, and it showed how unguardable he has become

  • The Utah Jazz deployed a radical and unusual defensive strategy against James Harden that backfired.
  • The Jazz gave Harden open drives to his right, keeping one defender on his hip, trying to corral Harden to center Rudy Gobert. The Milwaukee Bucks effectively deployed this strategy against Harden this season.
  • Harden, however, shredded the defence, exposing some flaws in the Jazz’s system.
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How unstoppable is James Harden? The Utah Jazz tried to slow him down by only letting him score in one way. Unfortunately, for the Jazz, it didn’t work.

The Houston Rockets beat the Jazz in Game 1 of the playoffs on Sunday. One big takeaway from the matchup was that the Jazz will need to find a new way to guard Harden.

Harden had a modest game by his standards, with 29 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists, but it was the way he shredded the Jazz’s radical defensive strategy that ought to concern Utah.

The Jazz borrowed a defensive strategy a few other teams have used this season: giving Harden open drives to the right.

The logic is multi-faceted. The Rockets try to score on shots at the rim or on three-pointers, with nothing in between. Their offence is based around Harden running the pick-and-roll, driving to the basket, pulling up for three, or spraying the ball out to shooters when help comes.

The Jazz’s strategy was to take away Harden’s left hand (his dominant hand) force him right, with a defender on his hip to corral him to center Rudy Gobert in the paint. The strategy is supposed to prevent Harden from pulling up for three or getting all the way to the rim, instead, forcing him into awkward, contested shots from middle distances.

As TNT’s Kenny Smith said on “Inside the NBA” on Sunday, the Jazz weren’t “forcing” Harden right – they were just “allowing” him to go right.

Jazz defence harden 1via AT&T SportsNet/NBA

But Harden is so good that he navigated it quite easily, sinking floaters or finding his big men for lobs.

Other times, Harden simply found the open man.

The Jazz were copying a defensive strategy the Milwaukee Bucks used effectively against Harden during the regular season, but there were a few key differences.

One problem that many in the NBA world noted: Gobert was coming too far out on Harden. That allowed Harden extra space to dribble around Gobert and for Rockets center Clint Capela to slide behind Gobert for lobs. As a result, it forced the Jazz to send help down to Capela, leaving shooters open.

via AT&T SportsNet/NBA

Compare this with how the Bucks defended Harden. Some of it is a natural advantage, with long-armed, athletic defenders like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe cluttering Harden’s passing windows. Also, note that Brook Lopez stayed closer to the basket than Gobert.

via AT&T SportsNet/NBA

Another difference to note: Harden’s kickout options are to the top of the key and the wing. Even if he got the ball past Antetokounmpo and Middleton, it would take longer to arrive to P.J. Tucker (17) and James Ennis (4). Both Bucks players could recover on time to contest.

Against the Jazz, Harden could deliver the ball on time to Tucker, who was open in the corner, with little chance for a Jazz defender to recover.

Here is another example. Harden made this floater, but it’s the type of shot the Bucks could live with. Passes to the outside were contested, and Lopez and Antetokounmpo came up just far enough to make Harden pull up instead of getting to the rim.

Bucks defence 2via TNT/NBA

The Jazz could make adjustments to this defence, mainly in their positioning – keep Gobert closer to the rim, have help defenders play more center field to clog things up. They had more problems than just guarding Harden, and Harden shot just 43% from the field, a possible sign that some of what Utah did work.

However, the defensive scheme is another sign that Harden has entered a new level offensively. He is in a Stephen Curry air, where his presence alone bends defences and forces them to act in unusual ways just to slow him down.

If Harden continues to find ways to pick apart the Jazz defence, Houston should move onto the second round quickly.

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