Like with any of the NBA’s elite players, teams can often extrapolate victories from limiting the damage a player is capable of doing in lieu of expecting to stop them entirely. This was the case in the Milwaukee Bucks’ 116-109 victory against the Rockets on Wednesday night. Not only was the team able to get the actual win, they also found a way to hold James Harden to 42 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and two steals. Believe it or not, the Bucks put in a lot of effort to keep Harden at those numbers, and, best of all, it worked.
Milwaukee’s plan against the left-handed Harden was to take away the left side of the court, even if it meant giving him a lane to the basket on the right. Whoever was responsible for guarding last season’s MVP would set up on his left side, with a big man stationed not too far from the basket whose eyes were focused on Harden in case he bolted to the rim. Everyone else stood between their man and Harden. It was bizarre, but it looked like pure art:
In practice, the set up would force Harden to make a move near the basket to get to his favored left side. Because of the late move, he’d be in an uncomfortable position to start a layup motion, and would often have a big man bearing down on him while he made his move. The results weren’t pretty and often looked something like this:
As the frustration of not getting the drives, or the foul calls, he wanted, Harden began to settle for jump shots instead. Those also turned into misses that Bucks players could gobble up as rebounds because the defender was already right by his shooting hand, making shots easier to disrupt.
This is how most of the first half, and some of the second half went for him. Things were even disrupted in the passing lanes as Harden was forced to turn the ball over nine times when all was said and done.
Yet, Harden still got 42 points. This was thanks to a combination of left-handed floaters from the right, step-back threes that came from right-handed dribbling and, of course, his uncanny ability to draw fouls (he earned 11 free throws this game). It still required a lot more effort than he probably would have liked, and put extra responsibility on his teammates to pick up the offensive slack. That’s where Milwaukee’s defensive strategy was given the most help. Out of the nine Houston players that took the floor, only four hit double-digit scoring and four of the five single-digit scorers only made one shot from the field. One could argue that Chris Paul’s presence as a scorer and facilitator would prevent these kind of games from happening, but depending on a 33-year-old who is currently resting because he’s injured his hamstring for the umpteenth time should not be the formula of a team with championship aspirations.
This isn’t the first time this type of defense has been played against the Rockets. SB Nation’s Tim Cato wrote about the Raptors doing this against Houston last season—the Rockets had Chris Paul in the lineup at the time, however. But this came at a time when Houston has become almost entirely dependent on Harden’s solo efforts that have made him the frontrunner in the MVP conversation. Now that Milwaukee has provided the league with a blueprint on how to stop an MVP from running rampant on your team, it’ll be interesting to see how Houston, and Harden, does from here. Hopefully those other teams don’t forget the most important part of the strategy: pegging the shit out of Harden’s head with a 200 mph pass attempt.