The first time the Rockets and Clippers met this season, James Harden target="_blank">turned in a defensive performance well worthy of public shaming. It was a perfect blend of inattention and malaise, so inauspicious that Houston coach Kevin McHale sat Harden for the entire fourth quarter of a 137-118 loss on Nov. 4. That might seem like a dramatic move considering that the Rockets still had time to close the gap (they trailed by 15 points entering the final period), but given the altogether depressing quality of Harden's coverage, McHale's decision was justifiably pragmatic.
This past Saturday, though, offered Harden occasion to revisit those blunders in a rematch with the Clippers. He would have a chance to remedy the plays in which he seemed to doze off while guarding sharpshooter J.J. Redick (who had 26 points on 8-of-15 from the field and 8-of-8 from the free-throw line in the first meeting). He'd be given another go at those possessions he botched by allowing his man to drive past him. There would be no element of surprise, as Harden would know full well that anything but his full attention would likely get him burned by cutters and spot shooters. Solid, dependable defense wouldn't make for such entertaining GIFs, but a better showing could offer a thin slice of redemption.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. McHale did Harden -- and his team -- a service by ensuring that his All-NBA shooting guard/walking liability was never intentionally matched up with Redick, though even that bit of matchup manipulation couldn't completely hide Harden's blunders. You likely won't find another lowlight reel, because fewer of Harden's errors led directly to Clippers baskets. But he still played fundamentally atrocious defense -- albeit with lower stakes, given the change in defensive assignment.
That made a difference, though not as much as the Rockets would have liked. With Harden sliding over to defend lesser offensive players, Chandler Parsons was slotted to guard Redick as a default. His effort was worlds better in that matchup than Harden's, but it didn't amount to much; even with the tweak, Redick finished with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Parsons didn't give up on plays mid-sequence or gamble as often as Harden, but he, too, proved to be a poor defensive match for such a potent off-ball threat.
Most of Harden's defensive possessions, on the other hand, followed a basic design: Harden would be tasked with guarding whichever opponent would likely be sitting stationary in the weak-side corner. In many cases, that player was Jared Dudley, but Harden also took turns on Jamal Crawford (a manageable matchup for Harden because Crawford is not a particularly intuitive cutter) and Darren Collison (when sharing the court with Chris Paul). Regardless, Harden's limited function remained more or less the same:
Note: With these interactive still shots, hover over the target icons to view the relevant explanation as captions. To watch the full video of the play, click the overlaying play button.
Simply by taking Harden out of the play as often as possible, Houston maintained better defensive balance. Redick got his and the Clippers in general found ways to score, but Harden, at least, wasn't exploited quite as easily.
That's not to say he wasn't still a problem. Harden was just as unfocused and sluggish as he had been in the first game against the Clippers. In fact, one sequence -- in which Dudley blew by Harden on a perimeter drive -- was essentially a carbon copy of a play from their previous game:
Dudley, frankly, should not be able to create off the dribble against a team aiming for the title. He's a fine player but lacks the quickness to beat opponents off the bounce. That doesn't stop Harden from getting out of his way here, hanging his teammates out to dry.
Harden also showed a familiar inability to track his man on cuts, particularly when forced to work around screens. On this possession, Collison brings the ball up the floor, passes to Paul and makes a standard NBA move: a quick cut down the lane with the aid of a high screen. You'll see a cut exactly like this one in most every NBA game, and yet look how much distance Collison gets on Harden here:
Harden wasn't being asked to chase a shooter like Redick around a series of screens, but merely keep pace with a single opponent as he made his cut through the lane. He failed spectacularly, and then followed up his mistake by over-helping, failing to recover and giving his man a wide-open corner three-pointer. The helping without need or purpose is a frequent issue. Harden loves to linger in open space -- often fully upright -- in order to play the passing lanes. This makes him incredibly susceptible to both backdoor cuts and back screens, as Harden grows so entranced by the movement of the ball that he fails to see his own man streaking into scoring position.
Even when guarding lesser opponents, Harden just can't seem to keep himself from gambling. It's unfortunately as persistent a habit on the ball. Part of the reason why Harden gives up so many drives to the basket is because he's constantly angling for steals, which leaves open lanes for opponents to attack. These are dead-end plays; Harden makes one stab at forcing a turnover (often by way of a playground-style attempt to poke the ball out from behind), but when the move fails he's taken out of the play entirely. Harden is annoyingly accepting of his initial mistakes; he's simply too cool to hustle back to his man after losing track of him the first time, leaving the rest of the Rockets to scramble through the possession 4-on-5 as Harden stands around on the perimeter guarding no one in particular.
These are not new problems. Houston has been exploring how best to hide Harden for the better part of a year, as the same underlying laziness and lack of awareness were problematic for the Rockets last season as well. What's changed are the expectations for a team with loftier goals than a mere playoff berth, and the strain of Harden's defensive lapses against it. The combination of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik might be better equipped to deal with Harden's faults than any pair of big men in the league, but even those two are overstretched in covering for the lapses and gambles of Harden and his perimeter teammates. Even long-shot championship contention will require a defensive integrity that Houston currently lacks, putting the onus on an unreliable, apathetic defender like Harden to address his faults more directly. Working in easier situational matchups will help, as Harden can be more palatable defensively if put in a position to succeed. From there, though, Harden's entire defensive approach needs work -- from the way he tries to guard the ball to his misplaced attempts at help. He's a long way from respectability on that end, but it's a young season yet.