James Harden has seen the full gambit of defensive schemes in his eight years in Houston, with opposing coaches increasingly turning to gimmick tactics to slow down the two-time scoring champion.
The Spurs began severe shading of Harden in the 2017 playoffs, placing defenders on his left hip to take away his patented step-back jumper. Milwaukee and Utah took the scheme a step further last season, placing their defender fully behind Harden in a trailing technique in most half-court possessions. Harden and the Rockets entered 2019-20 assuming they had seen it all, creating counters for even the most extreme defensive measures. But opponents have unleashed a new scheme in the last five games: double-team Harden at every turn.
The Nuggets were the first team to employ the double-everything tactic, holding Harden to just 27 points on 16 shots on Nov. 20. The scheme flustered the Rockets, who tallied 20 turnovers in their worst scoring night of the season. Houston looked lost in space with their lead playmaker swarmed by defenders. The Rockets hesitated to shoot open threes, and many forays into the lane were accompanied by nervous dribbles and shoddy passes. Houston's role players accustomed to spot-up shooting and rim-running couldn't make plays in space.
A loss to the Clippers on Nov. 22 marked the height of Houston's frustration with opponents' schemes. Not only did Harden have to navigate past Kawhi Leonard, Paul George sprinted at Harden on a slate of second-half possessions, forcing Harden to combat a pair of elite wing defenders. Los Angeles doubled Harden on the final possession of the Clippers' 122-119 win at the Staples Center, and a turnover as time expired sealed the victory. Harden expressed his frustration postgame.
"The whole season they’re running doubles teams at me. I’ve never seen that in an NBA game where you’ve got really good defenders and someone else running at the top of the key," Harden told reporters. "Y’all let me know the last time you’ve seen that."
Despite Harden's frustration, the defeat in Los Angeles marked a turning point in Houston's handling the double teams. The Rockets are leading the NBA with 124.4 points per 100 possessions in its last three games, and they appear to be navigating the slew of doubles with relative ease. Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni laughed at the double-team idea on Nov. 27, and his lack of concern is beginning to be validated.
"The strategy is let's double James, and leave Russell completely open, who's an MVP right beside him," D'Antoni said. "I don't know if that's works. That's kind of risky if I'm an opposing coach."
Houston's aggression in countering the double teams has keyed their turnaround. When teams immediately double as Harden approaches half court, a wing or small-ball five flashes to the foul line as an easy outlet. Austin Rivers, Danuel House and Ben McLemore have shined in the roll, diving downhill with authority in 4-on-3 situations. Pausing at the foul line allows defenses to reset and bring the help defender back into the play. When the Rockets attack early, a layup, lob or open three is usually on the way.
"We're starting to get adjusted to what we're seeing," Harden said at the Toyota Center on Monday. "We're being aggressive and figuring it out quickly, making plays to get open shots."
The Rockets will add another asset to counter the double teams on Tuesday. Starting center Clint Capela is expected to return to the starting lineup, giving Houston a talented lob threat with more athleticism than Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein.
Don't expect to see Capela screening much for Harden as long as the doubles continue to flow. The 25-year-old center is a bit of a disaster in space, unable to put the ball on the floor or find open shooters as a roller (this possession was particularly ugly). But Capela will still be plenty effective in the dunker's spot, adding a vertical dimension to Houston's odd-man rushes. Hartenstein's hands are shaky. Chandler isn't the leaper he was a decade (or two decades) ago. Capela is an elite lob threat, one who could dissuade teams from sprinting two defenders toward the top of the key.
The Rockets' offense is rolling against double teams after their initial hiccups, culminating in Harden's 60-point effort against the Hawks on Saturday night. Doubling Harden in spurts could be an effective weapon for opposing defenses, and the 2016-17 MVP will continue to see additional bodies thrown his way throughout the season.
But Houston appears to have found solutions to its doubling problem, creating a pair of concerning options for opponents. Double Harden, an open shot is on its way. Cover him one-on-one, and the step-back parade will begin. Harden should find more breathing room as his teammates capitalize on their open looks.