Many fans seem to hate watching James Harden play. I see. There is a paralyzing effect in Harden’s thud-thud-thud that he dribbles 20 times as four teammates are in Harden’s chosen locations.
But I have a soft spot for Harden’s visual experience. Inspire a game of chess unlike anything else in the NBA. The loud step-back 3-pointer turned Harden into something unprecedented, or very similar: a player who could score one-on-one from anywhere.
On many possessions, the Rockets no longer had to play for Harden, they no longer had to engage in things we knew as basketball. They began to see choices, one of the fundamental building blocks of the game, as an obstacle.
“We were talking about the screen as an escort for a double team,”
How did you defend such a player? Few teams boast an elite wing defender who can stand with Harden one-on-one. If you crush it too much, you will risk a 3-hit foul – the most efficient game outcome possible. Some teams, especially the Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs – they had defenders draped over Harden’s left shoulder, almost climbing onto his back, and forcing him to Clint Capela under the rim.
Earlier this season, teams began following the Denver Nuggets lead and trapping Harden the moment he crossed half the pitch. They had some success when both Russell Westbrook and Capela were on the ground: one non-shooter to be ignored on the perimeter, another conveniently positioned near the basket. Houston promptly traded Capela.
The reality is that no scheme can contain the league’s best alpha ball handlers. They are too good, with too many shots around them. Show them a steady diet of anything and they will pick it aside. The elite defenses can limit the bleeding, but they continue to bleed.
If those ball handlers know a trap is coming, and from where, the readings become easy. If the pressure comes early on the shot clock, the attack can shoot three, four, five times. The ball could play all around and go back to the superstar who started it all. Good defenses can climb through a few rotations. Drag them again and they usually break.
Defenses have to mix things up, but each blend tends to have a certain flavor. This bias could depend on many variables: staff support from both sides, time and score, coaching preferences.
But as I wrote in reference to the battle between Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, the right tilt could be towards an amplified pressure in the back half of the shot clock – pressure that causes the superstar to give up the ball with no time to get back. It’s not manic pressure for the sake of it. It’s aggression designed “to get everyone else beat you” under pressure, with the 24-inch clock serving as the sixth defender.
And that’s how the Lakers contained Harden and Rockets in fighting control of this series in Games 2 and 3. Houston still scored 111.6 points for 100 possessions in those two defeats. That’s good! He would have finished ninth or tenth in the regular season. Harden had 60 points out of 17 shots of 35 combined in those games. But those numbers are manageable for the Lakers now that Frank Vogel has loosened the space for LeBron James and Anthony Davis in attack by putting his centers out of service. (Playoffs Rajon Rondo absorbed a lot of those middle minutes was huge.)
Much of the talk on this series has been about how that lineup adjustment could provide oxygen for the Lakers’ midfield attack, but this team has made defense their foundation throughout the season. The Lakers finished third in points allowed for possession and no. 1 in the Western Conference. LeBron accepted from day one and the rest of the team followed suit. We thank Vogel for reinforcing this culture, and Vogel and his staff for creating a killer game plan after Houston tore the door open.
I can imagine the Lakers mantra for his defense against traps could be: Defend a passage. If you can take that first catch-and-shoot opportunity out of the trap, you have a chance to restore your defense and force Houston to produce a worse shot, often without further Harden involvement.
The Lakers’ dream defensive possession looks like this:
The Lakers are ready for that first pass to Eric Gordon. As the trap sets in, Kyle Kuzma positions himself between Gordon and Robert Covington, prepared for both alternatives:
Two other steps follow, each easier and more predictable to defend than the previous one. Possession dies.
The Lakers set that trap with 13 on the shot clock – enough time for Harden to get back into the game. Instead, it lies in the same spot for nearly 10 consecutive seconds – on the floor relative to the action, 30 feet from the edge.
Harden often retires towards the middle of the field once he relinquishes control of possession. The Lakers’ late-trap strategy is a bet on Harden’s passivity.
The NBA playoffs progressed to the second round at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex.
• Goldsberry: Playoff success is based on 3s
• Small-ball Rockets and opening tip
• Game 3 showed why LA chased Kawhi
• Pelton: Because Giannis is not a playoff MVP
• The choices of the experts for the second round
(This isn’t limited to the Lakers’ traps. With Game 3 slipping away, Harden vanished from three empty Houston possessions straight at 6: 10-5: 10 of the fourth quarter. He never touched the ball in the middle one. first and third, he died after crossing half the pitch and never touching it again – or at any time once the shot clock passed 18. Westbrook was on the bench. The possessions ended with: a Covington turnover; Kuzma blocking a flailing Jeff Green attempt near the rim; and Green throws the ball out of bounds.)
Here’s one from Game 2, when the Lakers trap with 14 on the shot clock:
(Austin Rivers lost the ball; it splashed to Covington, who hit a hopeless 3-point shot at the end of the clock.)
Danuel House Jr. flashes in the middle as an outlet, but the Lakers have been prepared for that cut. Their rotations under the trap were punctual: urgent, precise, decisive. Davis is everywhere. Kuzma is defending at the best level of his career and has been mostly in the bubble. LeBron is in beast mode, rotates ferociously and cancels shots to the basket. (Seriously: I can almost hear and hear LeBron’s thumping, turbo-charged footsteps through the television. My god.)
An interesting wrinkle from Game 3: The Lakers sent out many of their traps, including the first clip, from Harden’s left side. It could have been an accident. Harden worked a lot on the right side of the pitch, leaving more defenders on his left. But he pushed Harden towards his weak hand and right sideline. It can still do damage there, of course. He quickly dumped where the traps would originate and drove in the opposite direction:
Rockets may adapt at times by clearing the right corner, so there are no help defenders nearby:
But there needs to be comfort in knowing where Harden is likely to go and in arranging the chess pieces so that the path leads to the sideline, reducing his passing options.
When the Lakers trap came from Harden’s right – and when he spotted it early – it broke out on the left with its usual blast:
(I’m not sure what JR Smith did to earn these occasional bursts of playtime, but I guess he’ll hit a hit at some point.)
The Lakers performed their traps well almost regardless of location. They doubled Harden 55 combined times in Games 2 and 3 and forfeited just one point per possession after those traps, per monitoring by ESPN Stats & Information – well below the overall Houston average. They doubled Harden twice as often in the second half of Game 3 than in the first 24 minutes, and kept the Rockets at a paltry 0.54 points per possession in that half, for ESPN Stats & Info. is a little less optimistic about Lakers’ entrapment, but paints it as largely effective.
Some of the (rare) errors of L.A. were unnecessary and excessive rotations long after the Lakers got trapped and reset their defense with the Rockets’ offensive wheezing:
The trap (again from the left) works and the initial rotations behind it are kiss from the chef gorgeous. You don’t need a second defender flying to Rivers when he’s well covered in the mid-range with five on the shot clock. Make him shoot a float!
Please note Kuzma’s mini-rotation at the start of the Lakers run: Rivers runs out of the 3-point arc but does not chase him into the lane. He trusts Markieff Morris’ presence, and U-turns to choke House in the right corner:
This is a gorgeous little piece of defense. The Lakers’ post-trap rotations have been full of little goodies.
This is a more traditional trap, i.e. against a pick-and-roll, but Davis does almost the same rotation alternating between Westbrook and Covington:
Again: Davis was everywhere.
Even so, sometimes Harden will beat you. He’s so good, and when Westbrook is on the bench, the field is wide open:
The Lakers seem to know they can’t overdo this aspect; they saved him mostly for the second half in Game 3. Houston has some adjustments. The Rockets can set the choices for Harden to mid court and give him a long lead. Harden attacking first, pre-trap, would help as far as it is possible to prevent traps. Changing the starting points of the possessions – left, right, center – could prevent the Lakers from getting into a rhythm.
If Houston is determined to do some pick-and-roll, she can vary Harden’s screener – Westbrook is useful in that role – and perform some screen-the-screener actions to hold back the second Lakers defender.
The biggest problem is Westbrook’s up and down performance. He was a major Houston trap breaker in the regular season, cutting open space and zooming in for layups. Those layups are tougher against James and Davis’ rim protection; Westbrook can’t force him when those two are girding to challenge him and kick-out passes are available. (Harden also forced some close shots when there were easy passes.)
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Houston is minus-19 in 18 minutes with Harden sitting – and Westbrook playing – in the last two games after winning those minutes in Game 1. Five of Westbrook’s 10 turnovers in those two games came in those 18 minutes and Westbrook balls lost – and misses the basket – ignites the devastating machine of the Lakers counterattack.
(There is really no statistical evidence to support this, but I have this occasional annoying feeling that if the Rockets lose the presence of a screening and dive center, it’s during these minutes in Westbrook. Westbrook gets along well in a spread the pick-and-roll attack, but the Rockets don’t have a screen-setter that presents any vertical threats.Many of these Westbrook-only possessions consist of aimlessly walking around the perimeter before someone attacks a set defense one-on-one. Westbrook has a harder time than Harden beating his own defenders, because they are waiting for him in the paint.)
The Lakers also won the Westbrook-Harden tandem minutes (narrowly). Houston is more 9 in 42 minutes than just Harden so far. There is a late piece in the first and third quarters when Westbrook and LeBron rest at the same time, leaving Harden to face the Lakers without LeBron. Look at those minutes. It will be difficult for Houston to extend this series to six or seven games if they don’t win them.
House’s status for Game 4 is unclear, but it appears Covington is an attempt after his collision with Davis at the end of Game 3. The Rockets can’t afford to dig deeper into their rotation. House’s absence opened the door for more Ben McLemore minutes, and LeBron is chasing McLemore whenever he gets the chance. If McLemore plays, it could be when LeBron rests. (Lakers fans would rightly argue that their team misses Avery Bradley, a prominent starter.)
This game 4 is a test of Houston’s will. The Rockets had a chance to win Games 2 and 3 and lost both. This can be demoralizing. Will they wither or fight? The attack is usually easy for the Rockets, but the Lakers are making them fight for everything.