In honour of the NBA’s imminent return, here’s a breakdown of how James Harden dominated the Atlanta Hawks last season.
When looking back at the best individual performances of the 2019-20 NBA season, it’s hard to look past James Harden’s display when the Atlanta Hawks faced the Houston Rockets in November last year.
Harden scored 60 points in just three quarters. He also handed out eight assists, and in fact, he was only one point off his career high.
Playing against the Atlanta Hawks probably helped, as they had the worst defence in the NBA last season, with their opponents averaging 119.7 points per game. Harden’s shooting splits also helped. He shot 16 for 24 (66%) from the field, 8 for 14 (57%) from three, and attempted 23 free throws, making 20 of them (87%).
As expected, Harden was up to his old tricks – working in isolation offence to shoot layups, three pointers, or get fouled.
Harden drove to the rim on countless occasions, utilising his trademark crossover dribble to do so. He’s such an impressive ball handler and is so strong, he was almost impossible to knock off balance. As such, he easily finished through contact or drew fouls.
He was also hitting his step-back threes, as per usual.
The Rockets ran either a four-out or five-out offence, which basically means how many offensive players are stationed outside of the three-point line. For example, a five-out offence would start with all five players outside the three-point line. Tyson Chandler started the game for Houston, so he obviously dictated that it was four-out to begin with.
Later, when there was no Chandler, it became five-out.
The benefits of having shooters spread out around Harden have been well documented, and these benefits were seen against the Hawks. There was space in the paint for Harden to drive into, as defenders didn’t want to help off Houston’s shooters. Harden’s two-point attempt shot chart shows how close to the basket he was getting – and he only missed twice.
So how exactly did James Harden get to 60? Firstly, he was looking for switches to get himself a favourable matchup. In the play below, Chandler set the screen on Harden’s man, forcing the switch onto Jabari Parker – all for Harden to size him up and hit the three-pointer.
To get the switch on this play, Harden did something a little different. Russell Westbrook was the ball handler, and Harden was the screener. This forced DeAndre’ Bembry onto Westbrook, and Evan Turner onto Harden. Harden then drew the foul on his three-point attempt. He, of course, hit all three free throws.
Going back to Jabari Parker, Harden went at him a lot.
He was even turning down screens to attack him off the dribble (and draw fouls).
One-on-one defence was a struggle for Atlanta at times. Jabari obviously had his problems, and DeAndre’ Bembry was also matched up against Harden, but to no avail. Whoever guarded him, Harden still managed to score.
This led to Atlanta defending Harden in various ways. Double-teaming became the next logical step, but the problem with that logic is that Harden is one of the best passers in the NBA. Here, Jabari Parker and De’Andre Hunter doubled Harden, and he drew them to the right side-line to create space at the three-point line for PJ Tucker. Ben McLemore’s cut from the left corner to the top of the key occupied Bembry, so Harden got an assist by passing out of the double team to Tucker, who hit his open three.
The Hawks even tried triple-teaming Harden at one point. But Harden reacted quickly enough to find the open man in the corner for three.
On pick and rolls Atlanta would sometimes trap Harden, trying to force the ball out of his hands. However, that strategy didn’t work too well. In the play below, Harden got a pick from Ben McLemore, and Trae Young and De’Andre Hunter tried to trap him – only for Harden to make a beautiful bounce pass to McLemore who got by Parker for the dunk.
However, Houston didn’t just run isolation plays or pick and rolls for Harden – he moved off the ball quite frequently, with the Rockets utilising Westbrook as the primary ball handler.
The Rockets often ran Chicago action – which is a pin down screen into a dribble hand off. Here, Tucker set the pin down for Westbrook, who then collected the hand off from Chandler. Although it did slow down towards the end of the action, Hunter was ball watching – so Harden made a backdoor cut for an easy layup.
Houston’s head coach Mike D’Antoni also took a page out of Gregg Popovich’s playbook, running Motion Strong for Harden. Motion Strong is where two players set two pin down screens (basically stagger screens) to get a shooter open off the ball. Here, Tucker and Chandler set the pin downs for Harden, who managed to escape from Hunter into enough to space to catch the pass from Westbrook, set himself, and hit the three.
Here, the Rockets try Motion Strong again, but Jabari Parker actually did a great job of reading it and disrupting the pass. This forced Houston to reset.
Westbrook then drove and kicked to Tucker on the wing. But Harden didn’t just stand still and expect to receive the ball in order to create something himself. He cut off the back of Trae Young, got a nice bounce pass from Tucker, and made the layup with no resistance.
In fitting fashion, Harden eventually got his 60th point at the free throw line. His playing style has its detractors, but he’s arguably the best scorer in the entire NBA.
New Houston head coach Stephen Silas said he wants the Rockets to be “a little bit more versatile on the offensive end,” this coming season, suggesting that the team’s scoring output won’t be completely geared around Harden isolation plays. But on this night against the Hawks, James Harden showed the advantages of doing just that.