The Blazers currently lead the Rockets 3-1 in their first round series, largely due to the poor play of James Harden. Harden has struggled to an effective field goal percentage of 40.3%, down from 52.9% in the regular season (average is around 50%).
A big part of Harden’s inefficiency has been an excessive dependence on a shot Harden typically avoids like the plague–the midrange jumper. So far 28% of Harden’s attempts have been from the midrange, a big jump from his season rate of 18%, per NBA.com. He’s only hit 12 of them, but that’s kind of beside the point. The Houston philosophy is based on only taking threes, layups, and free throws, so any long two they take is a victory for the Portland defense.
Because I’m a cool person with a great sense of fun, I watched every jumper Harden took from the midrange in the first four games. While the poor shooting is probably down to luck or some mechanical issue, neither of which I can evaluate, the fact that he’s taking those jumpers is largely due to smart, aggressive defense from the Blazers.
Most of Harden’s jumpers have come from simple screen-and-rolls, most with Omer Asik as the roll man. Portland has consistently sent the man guarding Harden up around the pick, chasing him away from the three-point line.
This is standard pick and roll defense for Portland in this series. Matthews scrambles around the pick, getting his legs briefly tangled with Asik’s in an attempt to limit Harden’s space. He sticks his arm into Harden’s space, in what amounts to a pretty poor try at a steal but a good way to create an extra instant of hesitation. If Harden were to pull up for three here, Matthews would be right on top of him, either blocking the shot or getting a hand in his eyes.
Here’s an even more extreme example. Matthews makes quick work of the Asik screen and teams up with Aldridge to effectively sandwich Harden, who ends up taking (and making) an awkward half-floater from the free throw line. A couple important notes about these:
1. Harden doesn’t challenge the rim on either of these plays. It’s one thing to chase a guy off the arc, and quite another to stop him from scoring inside instead. In the first play, the floor is fairly open for a drive, but Harden elects to shoot. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it is probably due to the speed of Thomas Robinson (and Aldridge on the next play). Harden doesn’t ever really attack the rim, preferring to penetrate with a mix of near-travelling Eurosteps and crossovers. Aldridge and Robinson, who have more lateral quickness than, say, Robin Lopez, can contain those moves more capably. Here’s another example, in which Freeland moves quickly enough to contain Harden, allowing Batum to catch up to the play and preventing a game-winning layup.
That said, Harden looks downright scared of the rim in that second shot, stopping and letting Wesley catch him instead of attacking Aldridge. More on this later.
2. Omer Asik is a huge boon for Portland’s Harden coverage. He’s absolutely no threat from outside (his off-the-bounce miracle J in game 4 notwithstanding) and Matthews can safely ignore him to hound Harden. As long as Matthews sticks close to Harden, hitting Asik on the roll is a risky pass, which limits Harden’s options even more.
3. This is the same way Portland played the pick and roll all season, and it didn’t really work then. The difference in this series is that most of the dangerous ball-handlers in the league are point guards, and Lillard and Williams are much worse defenders than Matthews and Batum. Wes has the strength and Batum the length to get quickly through the screens and recover to contest.
One consistent and somewhat baffling trend in the series is how easily Houston gets Harden switched onto a point guard, and how Harden reacts. This play is really strange–Portland gets through two screens on the right side without switching, and then happily concedes a switch on the third one. Williams switches to Harden, and Lin immediately gets Harden the ball. Williams is a) smaller than Harden and b) bad at defense, so I’m a little confused about why Portland allows that switch to happen. What’s just as strange is what Harden does with the mismatch–jabstep, dribble, jumper. He hits it, but there’s no attempt to take the ball to the rim.
The same thing happens here with a Lillard-on-Harden switch, which leads to another long jumper. Given the long swipethrough and the flailing legs, I’m guessing Harden wanted the foul. Again, he fails to fully capitalize on a smaller, weaker defender.
The blame and credit for Harden’s poor shooting in this series are smeared all over the place, and it’s hard to say how much of it is sustainable. Wesley Matthews deserves a ton of credit; he’s not just having a wow-he-bothered-him-so-much-nice-effort series. He’s putting together a minor defensive masterpiece, not quite to the level of Tony Allen on Kevin Durant, but close.
Some of the blame also surely goes to Harden’s teammates and the Houston offense. They scored 17.1% of their points on fast breaks in the regular season, and seem bewildered now that the slower playoff pace has knocked that down to 10.1%. A consistent feature of those clips is a total lack of off-ball movement, which limits Harden’s options and forces him into poor shots.
However, something does seem off about Harden. His shots within five feet have dropped from about a third to roughly 20%. He’s reluctant to drive and seems indecisive on many of his shots. He barely tries on defense, so it doesn’t make any sense to chalk it up to fatigue, unless Wesley Matthews’s post-ups are wearing on him that much. I can’t speak to his mental state from afar, but I will say that “weirdo” is an insult I haven’t used since I was about 10.