OAKLAND, Calif. –– Any playoff series against the Houston Rockets begins in the mind of a coach. Defending James Harden isn’t just a tough day’s work, but a conceptual exercise. How much should you trap Harden, and when? To what extent should the defense lean to his left to guard against his dribbling preference? When a breakdown occurs, and one will, where should the help come from? The league’s sharpest defensive minds have tried for months to take away Harden’s drives, lobs and step-back threes. By and large, they have failed. Harden still averaged 36.1 points per game in the regular season, more than any player of the last 50 years not named Michael Jordan. In the first round, Utah held Harden to 37.4% shooting from the field, and still he made enough threes and free throws to total 139 points in a five-game series.
Now it’s the Warriors’ turn. Andre Iguodala drew the impossible assignment from the jump, which meant his elevation into the starting lineup. In the 32 minutes Iguodala was on the floor with Harden, the MVP hopeful made just a third of his shots and went 2-for-12 from beyond the arc, according to NBA.com. That didn’t stop Harden from finishing Game 1 with 35 points, though it did impede Harden’s (and Houston’s) offense just enough to buy a 104-100 victory for Golden State.
The first game is the most instructive: a 48-minute window into the thinking of an entire team. We may not know what was said behind the closed doors of a coaches’ meeting, but from the way a team plays, we can infer it. Even if a player won’t admit to singling out a particular weakness on film, they might make it clear by how they choose to attack. These priorities are at their absolute clearest in Game 1, before the adjustments and their responses muddle the picture. And in the case of this particular series, there is no facet more crucial than how the back-to-back champions approach their defense of the back-to-back scoring champion.
There is no perfect defender for a player like Harden, but Iguodala is among the best possible candidates for the job. In terms of physical profile, Iguodala has the reach to close out and the strength to absorb the blows Harden dishes out on his way to the rim. Even more valuable are his 15 years of experience in sticking the most dangerous scorers in the world. Harden has a brilliant mind for turning space and angles against his opponent. Iguodala, however, is a genius in his own right: a master of preemption in a line of work where success and failure are often separated by a fraction of a second. Golden State couldn’t ask for a more disciplined and precise defender, and still Iguodala will have his work cut out for him.
“He's really tough to guard,” Iguodala said of Harden. “Especially when he gets his dribble going and he's kind of bouncy. His left-to-right pace can throw you off guard. You've just got to play the best defense you're allowed and hope that he misses some shots.”
The decision to start Iguodala on Harden first comes through the decision to start Iguodala at all. For the vast majority of the regular season and the entire first round, Iguodala came off the bench. Moving him into the starting lineup is a signal of how serious a threat Houston poses, and likely a sort of relief for the injured Klay Thompson. It was unclear until his pregame warmup whether Thompson would play in this game and how much. It took the training staff days just to get his sprained ankle ready for the possibility of playing. “It was a lot of time on the training table,” Thompson said. “It’s not the best part of the job, but it makes you appreciate your health, makes you appreciate being able to compete every night.” If not for Iguodala, Thompson would likely have attempted to check Harden with one good leg.
Some of that responsibility fell to him anyway. By relying on a switching defense, the Warriors effectively concede that all sorts of players will be guarding Harden, and all of them do so in their own unique way. There is room within every scheme for individual approaches. We forget that it wasn’t the Bucks who pioneered the strategy of playing Harden to his extreme left, but Eric Bledsoe. Standing entirely to Harden’s side—and even behind him, at times—was an interpretation of a scheme rather than a scheme in itself.
The Warriors start with some hard and fast rules. “You can’t reach,” Thompson said. “You can’t go for the ball. Play with high hands.” From there, every player comes to the task of defending Harden in his own unique way. Iguodala’s arms are extended out and almost backward, an impressive commitment to self-policing. Green will often do the same. Thompson keeps his hands back, but jabs toward Harden’s dribble at random intervals to throw off his timing. Yet when closing out on Harden’s step-back three, Thompson is the most aggressive of all—perhaps by coincidence. It’s not only hard to push off of a sprained ankle, but to stop without drifting into a shooter’s zone.
The Rockets were none too pleased with the way these plays were officiated. Coach Mike D’Antoni claimed that after the first half, the officiating crew informed him that they had missed four calls on overeager closeouts from Golden State. “I just want a fair chance, man,” Harden said postgame. “Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called and we’ll live with the results.”
Calling the game the way it’s supposed to be called is easier said than done when players like Harden will land several feet ahead of where they left the ground for a jumper. To combat this, Warriors like Kevon Looney didn’t close out to Harden’s shot so much as his side, effectively running behind him. A quicker forward like Kevin Durant can afford to play Harden a bit tighter on the perimeter than Looney could; while shading toward Harden’s left, Durant kept his own left hand up and in the line of fire. Stephen Curry, a favorite target of Harden’s, instead played up as far into Harden’s dribble as he could. Pressure has a way of masking vulnerability. “We obviously needed that first line of defense, whoever is guarding him, to try to make it tough on him,” Curry said. “But at the end of the day, it’s all five guys being on a string and being able to help and recover out to the shooters and things like that.”
The Warriors began the game willing to switch any defender onto Harden, from centers to point guards. Such is the game-breaking value of the Death Lineup. Yet once Houston started to single out Curry in the pick-and-roll, the Warriors made deliberate moves to protect him. Sometimes Curry will preemptively switch with another defender while his man readies to set a screen for Harden. On one third-quarter possession, Curry and Thompson stood in the vicinity of Iman Shumpert and Danuel House without explicitly guarding either, causing the two Rockets to debate how to get Curry involved the play. It moved on without them. Eventually, Golden State tweaked its coverage to keep Curry out of switches whenever possible. The Warriors' risk was amplified by Curry’s foul trouble; the only thing worse than bleeding points from a mismatch was Harden fouling out Curry in the process. The real-time change forced Harden to recalibrate, but only because the Warriors had first. And then, once Harden had begun to grasp the timing of this alternative coverage, Curry sprung a trap that brought a crucial, late-game possession to a halt. There’s the scheme, and then there’s the moment. The best players know the difference.
“I couldn’t be more happy with the effort, focus,” coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s a five-man game when you’re guarding James.” Come Game 2, all five will have to line up again without any conceivable element of surprise. Houston will know that Iguodala is starting. There will be film showing passes Harden should have made and angles he could have taken. All the work of stopping one of basketball’s most dangerous scorers will reset with a new clock for a new day, only that much harder this time than the last.