The Defensive Short: Guarding James Harden Pt. II

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James Harden

James Harden is tearing up the NBA on a night to night basis. Eyes are glued to him to see what he’s going to do next. This scoring run is reminiscent of what Kobe Bryant did back in 2003 but Harden is doing it his way. His scoring ability is so unique that he’s making defenses guard him in unique ways.

Getting to the free throw line has been a strong suit for the reigning MVP. So much so that it has become a sore eye for a lot of viewers out there. First, he did it driving to the basket, showing the ball influencing defenders to reach.

Now Harden is drawing fouls on threes. But to make it worse, he’s draining them!

If a defender’s hands are in the cookie jar, Harden is going to make them pay. As soon as he senses it, he’s going up and the ref is calling it. He has benefited so much from it that we now see players defending him with their arms to the side or even behind their back.

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Not a bad strategy but at the same time, it’s not the most effective. Anyone who has gone through the gauntlet of defensive slides knows that, if your arms are behind your back then you lose a lot of momentum. Coaches practice slides in that way to emphasize moving your feet. Players are going this route at times when guarding Harden just so that he can’t draw the foul.

It doesn’t stop there. If he’s not getting fouled on the reach in then he’s getting fouled on the contest. Harden’s step back is one of the most lethal moves in the NBA and he’s perfected it so much that it’s almost impossible to defend. The issue is that on the step back, most defenders are recovering. During their contest, they’re either fouling him up top (which is the worst) or down-low.

James Harden vs Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
(Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)

The foul up top is the most frustrating because more times than none, the defender is not blocking that shot. Harden’s shot is so quick and he’s gained so much separation on the step back that the ‘theories of physics’ make it impossible to block. The only way it can happen is if the defender anticipates it and jumps a little early but that usually never happens because they’re on their heels due to Harden’s toe-taps / between the legs dribbles.

We also see fouls down low which occur often. This happens due to a combination of Harden’s momentum going forward on his shot and players lunging at him to contest. Reggie Miller, an NBA legend was often criticized for throwing his leg out to draw fouls on his shots. While Harden is not that egregious, he does throw his body/hip out there a little so that the defender can come down on him which referees call every time.

So how do you defend it?

The best and easiest way – don’t let him get the ball! The Lakers and Sixers both did a solid job this past week face guarding him the whole length of the floor. The Lakers essentially threw a box and one at him and made everyone else beat them. It wasn’t as effective because their rotations weren’t as crisp and it led to others getting open threes. However, it was the right idea.

They also influenced him to drive instead of letting him bomb threes. Although Harden is a lefty and he loves to drive left, if you force him that way, it’s harder for him to get off his beloved step back. In addition, if you have a solid rim protector in the paint, you put yourself in a good position to alleviate some of his effectiveness.

The 76ers harassed him all game. They threw bodies at Harden and made sure he felt him. Corey Brewer was all over him which even led to some frustration from Harden.

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That’s what you have to do to a great scorer. Keep a body on him, deny him and make him work for every bucket. Harden only had 10 points in the third quarter, sat out the entire fourth and had six turnovers for the game. He was nonexistent on defense and it clearly showed how tired he was.

Even though he still ended up getting a significant amount of points in those two games, he was worn out, frustrated and concerted a lot of effort.

Keeping your hand out of the cookie jar and trying to contest with a hand to the face and the body to the side are some keys to helping the defender. But the best words of advice are to not let him get the ball. If he can’t get the ball then he can’t score, simple as that. Harden has been so phenomenal that it has come to the point where you have to faceguard him for every second that he’s out there on the floor.

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