That guy with the beard is alright at basketball it appears.
With 45 points, he almost outscored the Hawks starters by himself, who tallied 55 points. The starters shot 54 times. James Harden shot 19.
Is this cause for concern for the those who worried about wing defense before the season?
Harden is obviously a talented offensive player who excels at getting to the free throw line. He marched there 17 times (!) hitting 15 of them. Looking at the Popcorn Machine GameFlow shows that he started out with Devin Harris defending him for the the majority of the first quarter, with Larry Drew deploying Teague and Harris in tandem to start the game. Standing at 6’3” and a slender 185 lbs., Devin Harris has never been known as a defensive stopper, especially not when guarding shooting guards. Asking him to lockdown a top 3 shooting guard that excels at getting to the rim in isolation or pick and roll is a death wish. Brad Rowland touched on Larry Drew’s rotations in this piece, and this may be the most questionable of all the coach put into action Friday night.
What makes Harden so dangerous is his rip-through move underneath the rim as a means to draw contact with the ability to finish for an And-1. He had 4 And-1 opportunities last night in Philips Arena in 40 minutes of action.
He came in the second quarter and drew Kyle Korver, and Anthony Tolliver at times, on him, putting in 9 points without missing a shot that quarter. It would not be constructive to put the burden of the blame on Harden’s defender, but the matchups on the floor were not conducive to slowing down a quick guard. Kevin McHale had a small lineup out on the floor with Jeremy Lin, Harden, Carlos Delfino, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson. Devin Harris drew Lin and Anthony Tolliver, who is more of a stretch power forward than a small forward, drew Delfino, who is more of a long range shooting guard than a 3. This left the Hawks defense with too big a lineup to slide easily if and when Harden blew past his defender on the perimeter. The end result was the post man out of position once Harden got in the paint, necessitating a foul.
This is illustrated here, albeit in the fourth quarter with a different but similarly large lineup:
Omer Asik, with the yellow arrow above him, set a pick on Harden’s man, Jeff Teague. That left Zaza Pachulia, with the green arrow, to chase Harden down as he motors toward the rim. From here, the near man, Al Horford, should slide, who is seemingly in front of Harden above, with Teague rotating to Horford’s assignment, Patrick Patterson in the corner. Patterson is not exactly known as a three point shooter with his first made three of his career coming earlier in the game.
The second frame shows the predictable result. Horford somehow ends up out of Harden’s way closer to Patterson and Zaza is forced to foul from behind, giving James an And-1.
What changes would Larry Drew make starting the second half regarding more focus on defending the penetration? You guessed it: the same exact lineup that started the game.
There were stretches with DeShawn Stevenson, the best perimeter defender on the team, on the floor to slow down Harden. Most nights he is a drag on the offense but he was 4-6 behind the arc last night. But there were also periods with Lou Williams across from Harden, essentially a Devin Harris clone defensively.
It was more of the same in the second half: a parade to the free throw line to the tune of 9 field goal attempts and 15 free throw attempts for Harden.
He did go 9-9 on the free throw line after the Hawks were down with less than 2 minutes ago and decided to slow down the game by sending Rockets who possessed a large beard to the free throw line. This helped inflate Harden’s overall scoring performance but in any case, the Hawks have to do a lot better stopping penetration and not fouling jump shooters.
Now what? What can be done to prevent a similar result when the Hawks have to matchup against Dwayne Wade or Joe Johnson or a similarly talented and athletic shooting guard?
The first answer is to stick your best defender on him from the beginning, a la Memphis and Oklahoma City starting Tony Allen and Thabo Sefolosha respectively despite their hindrances offensively. This gives them a physical presence in the game in hopes to throw the opposition out of rhythm from the start. This probably means starting DeShawn Stevenson from the start, although Lou Williams and Devin Harris should certainly get more minutes than Stevenson over the course of the season. Second, especially in the case of a Rockets team with limited other options other than Harden and Lin, double teams have to come periodically to take the ball out of Harden’s hands. More attention should clearly be paid during his pick and rolls seeing how effective he is in that situation. This means hard hedges from the defender to prevent him from turning toward the basket.
The Hawks had many other issues during the game, such as getting out-rebounded 58-36, lead by Omer Asik’s 19 rebounds. Larry Drew has his hands full to correct these issues, but there’s no need for panic. Even the Los Angeles Lakers are 0-3.