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Harden's Defense Could Be Deciding Factor Of Western Conference Finals

If he holds up on the defensive end, Rockets could be headed to the NBA Finals

May 11, 2018 - 10:38 am

By Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane)

Desperate for points with his season on the line, Quin Snyder needed to figure out a way to attack a Rockets defense that since allowing 116 points in game two had grown stingy. Down 3-1 in the series and trailing 43-35 in the second quarter he figured it out: go after James Harden. The Rockets still won the game, but in doing so, a weakness was highlighted. In the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, the Rockets fate will be decided not by Harden’s offense, but by his defense. 

The Jazz did to the Rockets what the Rockets have done to teams all season: they found a weak link in the defense and went after it at will. Harden never started out on Donovan Mitchell, but it didn’t take long for him end up on Utah’s star rookie.

A big run at the end of the first half gave the Rockets a comfortable lead at the break, and they pushed it to double digits early in the third quarter, when again, the Jazz went back to what worked in the first half.

Mitchell got hurt early in the fourth quarter, pretty much ending any chance the Jazz had of winning the game, but this isn’t a new strategy; teams have looked to go at Harden on the defensive end his whole career. The Rockets have tried to hide him in the past and will continue to do so, but that doesn’t always work, especially when you’re playing the best team in the world, and when the Rockets and Warriors last met January 20, Golden State started by going right at him.

The Warriors kept picking on Harden, even with Ryan Anderson on the floor.

This is what smart teams do. They find a weakness and exploit it every chance they get, but unlike the Jazz, the Warriors won't just isolate someone on Harden. They'll have him chase guys through screens, they'll post him up, they'll have his man cut to the rim from the weakside. In short, Harden is going to have to be mentally engaged at that end of the floor at all times. 

The thing is, Harden is capable of coming through when you need him most. Trailing late in that January 20 game at Toyota Center, the Warriors needed points, and so Steve Kerr did what any smart coach would do in that situation: he struck the weakest of the Rockets five defenders, though this time Harden stepped up to the challenge. 

James Harden is capable of playing good defense for an extended period of time. I wrote about the great defensive game he had in game two against Minnesota, but that was the Timberwolves, this is the Warriors, and for the Rockets to have a chance at winning this series, the Rockets will need their best player engaged on the defensive end every possession for an entire series.