Defenses are made to move and adjust. The quality of NBA offense means that defenses will inevitably be penetrated, probed and pressured. The defining variable in effectiveness is the defense’s ability to rotate and bend, fluidly changing shape, without ever breaking down. However, certain NBA players have the capability of perverting this quality for their own purposes, alternately hammering and coaxing a defense out of shape, creating advantages for themselves and teammates.
James Harden is a master of this art, exploiting a defense’s natural tendencies for adjustment to create shapes that are geometrically abhorrent and functionally impotent. In this first example, the Hawks defense begins with a taut perimeter. The top of this defensive perimeter flexes down as Jeremy Lin comes off the high ball screen and cuts off his penetration. As Harden receives the ball the defense still has a tight perimeter with plenty of coverage of both the three-point line and the empty space in the lane. But by the time Harden has penetrated into the lane and is making his pass the defense has completely collapsed. Essentially all five Hawks are standing within an arm’s length of the paint and all eyes are on Harden. From there it’s an easy kick out to Marcus Morris for a three-pointer.
In this second example the Celtics defenders are in a nearly perfect trapezoid as Harden brings the ball over halfcourt. Both corners are defended and there is a tight triangle of defenders around the top of the key. As Harden goes left around the Greg Smith screen, the Celtics defense begins to shift. Both corner defenders have taken a step towards the paint, narrowing the base of the trapezoid. The top of their defensive shape has pinched as well with Kevin Garnett hedging hard and Rajon Rondo giving Harden all his attention, passing his man, Jeremy Lin, off to a phantom sixth defender that I’m assuming only he can see. Luckily, Brandon Bass picks up the slack for his invisible teammate, leaving Carlos Delfino in the corner to chase Lin across the lane. Harden continues to penetrate, dragging three defenders with him. By the time he passes below the free throw line, the Celtics trapezoid has been squished into a straight line, amazingly with the momentum of all five defenders moving them away from the basket. Smith continues his roll to the basket and takes the bounce pass from Harden for an easy dunk.
In this last example, the TrailBlazers defense has plenty of time to set up as Harden holds the ball on the wing, directing Patrick Patterson to the corners and allowing the rest of his teammates to clear the center of the floor. The Rockets run a high pick-and-roll with Omer Asik coming out to set a screen for Harden. Even though Leonard Meyers hedges haphazardly, allowing Harden to turn the corner and effectively screening off Harden’s defender more effectively than Asik did, the TrailBlazers defense still has it’s shape and hasn’t completely collapsed. But as Harden crosses the free throw line, all five Portland defenders come to the ball. Harden opts to take the layup, but he also has Lin, Parsons and Patterson wide open at the three-point line. In addition to creating openings for a bevy of high-quality shots, the malformation of the TrailBlazers defense completely takes them out of offensive rebounding position. As Harden’s layup rolls off the rim, Patterson comes flying to slam it home.
In each one of these plays an initial breakdown allows Harden to get past the first defender. But from there his speed, awareness, savvy and control exploits the opponents’ rotation into an array unable to keep the ball out of the basket. James Harden is an offensive artist. Usually his chosen medium is his own athletic talents, but occasionally we get the opportunity to watch him create beautiful works with the confusion and enthusiasm of those intent on stopping him.