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How the Hawks Slowed Down James Harden

After a 22-point first quarter, the MVP candidate struggled to score against Atlanta's defense the rest of the game.
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Slowing James Harden down, even slightly, requires an unusual amount of luck, but it also depends on what a team makes of its good fortune. Atlanta caught Harden during three of his coldest quarters of the season, but did all they could to capitalize on his poor shooting and became noticeably more effective defending him as the game wore on and Harden wore down. He sprinted out of the gate with 22 points in the first quarter on 6-of-9 from the field, and appeared on track for a performance similar to the one he gave against the Hawks in Houston. But Atlanta held him to just 19 points on 3-for-25 shooting in the next three periods.

Some of that was simply a matter of Harden missing shots he ordinarily makes, but the Hawks made Harden feel them in a way he hadn’t before – largely because of a few schematic tweaks and timely individual defense. Atlanta began the game shading Harden to his right – a ploy many teams use against the lefty – and even sent extra bodies to him early in the shot clock. None of it worked as he carved the Hawks to pieces. He’d get by his man, draw help and find open teammates:

Or simply take matters into his own hands:

Houston was extremely effective in the first half using Trae Young’s man as a screener for Harden and creating a favorable one-on-one matchup:

Cam Reddish was the victim of two of those plays, but he defended Harden adequately during his time on the floor. He has already developed into perhaps Atlanta’s best perimeter defender, using his length, quickness, and instincts to pester ball-handlers and navigate screens. It was Reddish’s offense that kept him to just 18 minutes – none of which came in crunch time – on Wednesday. The Rockets might be the best team in the NBA at strategically leaving poor shooters open. If Reddish – a 26 percent 3-point shooter, doesn’t merit a closeout – the Rockets won’t give him one, and will instead sag off of him to take away better options and leave possessions to fizzle:

With Reddish’s defensive activity effectively unavailable late, the Hawks handed the Harden assignment to Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter. Harden absolutely flummoxed Hunter in what might have been the rookie’s worst game of the year the first time they matched up. Hunter was caught absentmindedly reaching and picking up fouls, standing flat-footed while Harden drove, and closing out too short on the Beard’s jumpers. On Wednesday, he had a better idea of both how to make Harden uncomfortable and play within Atlanta’s overall defensive scheme. “I just watched a lot of film on him,” Hunter said. “Watched my mistakes and what I was doing. So I just tried to go into this game and play him differently and see how it went.”

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In the second half, the Hawks began forcing Harden left instead of right, taking away his stepback jumper and sending him into help defenders in the paint:

“He’s probably the best scorer in the league,” Huerter said. “At that time he was in rhythm stepping back right, so let’s switch it up and make him go left, and he was still scoring but I think it was more effective and we made him work a little bit more for it.”

That kind of approach may look like the defense ceding an easy pathway for the ball-handler, but really Harden’s defender is controlling where the ball goes. If he drives, the Hawks will know in exactly what direction he does so. The defender doesn’t have to turn his body and change direction, and Atlanta can proactively send help instead of reacting to the drive and rotating late.

“He played on the left side of the floor a lot and we tried to keep him there,” Lloyd Pierce said. “He didn’t get going when he was on that side of the floor and we felt confident doing it. We knew where our help was coming from, we knew where our help was gonna be if he had to get off the basketball or if he penetrated. So it just felt like we were organized.” That allowed the Hawks to rotate more cohesively toward the rim and on the weak side, and the lobs Harden tossed to Clint Capela weren’t as readily available in the second half. Hunter and Huerter’s individual efforts kept constant pressure on the ball:

“Just get into the ball, not let him be comfortable doing his dribbling, stepbacks, and stuff like that,” Hunter said. 

If Harden did take stepback 3s, they were moving to his left and launched against his momentum:

Harden can make that shot, but the goal of defending an elite scorer isn’t to take away everything. All a defense can do is deny him what is most comfortable, force marginally more difficult shots, and hope he goes cold. “I know it sounds weird because he’s a lefty and he can get downhill,” Pierce said. “But we were willing to sacrifice that. I don’t think he’s as effective shooting that. And he’ll obviously disagree, but whether or not it affected him or impacted him tonight, it was our gameplan and it showed.”