Raptors’ high-risk experiment to contain Harden backfires against Rockets

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives past Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) as Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) moves in during second half NBA action in Toronto on Thursday, Dec.5, 2019. T(Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — If basketball was something actually important, Mike D’Antoni would be the equivalent of a scientist who invents robots capable of doing all the world’s jobs, only to later stand back in horror at the prospect of billions of people with no meaningful way to use their free time or any money to spend on it.

Okay, that might be a bit bleak as far as analogies go, but clearly D’Antoni and the Houston Rockets have unleashed something on the NBA with significant unintended consequences. They play a style that is strictly dictated by math, and thus relentlessly pursue three-pointers – even contested ones after many dribbles – free throws and lay-ups.

Houston has determined the best way to do that, on most nights, is to have James Harden — who came into Toronto averaging 38 points a game, putting him on pace for the highest non-Wilt Chamberlain average in NBA history — take as many of each of those types of shots as possible.

The Toronto Raptors got their chance see what peak analytic efficiency looks like – at least when Harden is on your team – at Scotiabank Arena Thursday night.

Coming in, the Rockets’ script has been mostly unwavering: Give the ball to Harden and get out of the way. Literally.

“We don’t have any movement, we’re not supposed to move, really and no other team does it like that,” said Rockets guard Austin Rivers, who is in his second season playing alongside Harden. “Everything happens when the help goes to James.”

Well, a lot of defensive help went to Harden as the Raptors gave the Rockets star a nearly unprecedented level of attention, and a lot of stuff happened in what ended up a 119-109 Toronto loss, their second-straight at home, dropping them to 15-6 on the season.

The Raptors trailed almost the entire game and by 14 early in the fourth quarter. Their best chance to steal a win was when they held the Rockets scoreless for four minutes, beginning at the 6:35 mark of the fourth quarter while trailing by 10, but could only count four free throws to their name over that stretch.

It appeared that Fred VanVleet managed to draw a three-point shooting foul on Rivers with 1:14 to play and the Raptors trailing by six, but it was judged upon review that VanVleet had stuck his leg out to draw the call. Russell Westbrook closed the game out for the Rockets with a lay-up and a pair of free throws.

The Raptors largely contained Harden, as he scored “only” 23 points on 11 shots, by routinely sending a second defender to him the minute he crossed half and almost always having one defender stand by him long after he moved the ball.

And he willingly moved the ball and his teammates took advantage as Houston shot 22-of-55 from three. Containing Harden wasn’t the problem, but when Rockets not named Harden make 19 threes, you’re going to have an issue, particularly when the Raptors shot just 12-of-39 from deep.

Pascal Siakam led Toronto with 24 points, but he only scored four after halftime on 2-of-8 shooting as the Rockets fed him a steady dose of PJ Tucker and a variety of help defence too.

Harden and the Rockets adjusted and Siakam and the Raptors didn’t.

“We’ve seen it all at this point,” said Rivers, who made three triples and counted five assists in 28 minutes off the bench for Houston. “We’ve been saying for weeks that if teams do that we’re going to make them pay, you know what I mean. I hope teams keep doing that because we have plenty of shooters. It’s very simple to figure out, it’s grade school stuff. Someone flashes to the middle and then they find an open shooter from there. It’s either a lay-up or a three.

“It was an interesting experiment to see it play out,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think it was pretty good. It wasn’t great, but it was pretty good. We just weren’t good enough in some of the other areas. I talked about that in pre-game. Against this team, 50 threes are going to go up. What did they shoot, 55? There are 33 long rebounds there. … We’ve got to race those down a little bit.”

But the Raptors’ defensive approach was an extreme response to an extreme basketball event.

Harden is averaging an NBA-leading 24 field goal attempts a game and is on pace for league records in three pointers (14.3) and free throws (13.1) attempted per game as well.

Four out of every 10 Rockets possessions Harden is on the floor for end with him shooting, passing for an assist or drawing a foul. He dribbles the ball more than anyone in the game — often while stationary — and it makes for a lot of standing around for everyone else.

But guess what? It works, even if it’s miles from the up-tempo, sharp-passing, cutting and ball movement D’Antoni introduced with the Steve Nash-era Phoenix Suns that helped usher in the ‘space-and-pace’ approach which has come to dominate the league.

The Rockets are third in offensive efficiency this season. They were second last year and first two years ago.

“You don’t like the way we look? I’ll say it for you,” D’Antoni joked when I asked him about it. “I don’t think it’s my job to care how it looks. My job is to maximize what you have on a team. That’s what we have. We have one of the best offensive scorers ever [in Harden] and we made that decision three years ago to put the ball in his hands, and it’s worked.

“I’m not trying to complicate it,” D’Antoni continued. “Yeah, I think as a coach I’d love to run the guys around, the ball move, everyone wants to do that. But my job is to have this team function at the highest rate of efficiency as it can. That’s our best way.”

The Raptors have made a name for themselves by implementing aggressive defensive game plans against elite NBA scorers so far this season – throwing traps and double teams at them early and often, and trusting the other three defenders on the floor can adjust quickly enough to challenge shooters if and when the stars move the ball.

As a result, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard have been held well below both their scoring averages and their average shot attempts against Toronto.

Nurse was at it again against Harden but in an even more high-risk manner, as Harden was trapped at times the minute he crossed centre, usually by leaving Westbrook alone, hoping the former NBA MVP who is shooting just 41 per cent from the floor and 22.9 per cent from three wouldn’t be able to punish them.

The results were mixed. At half-time Harden had just six points on three field goal attempts and had been to the foul line only twice – by any measure a remarkable level of game plan execution.

The problem? The Rockets thrived attacking in 4-on-3 situations after Harden passed out of the double team and they struggled to find shooters on second or third pass as Ben McLemore, Danuel House Jr., PJ Tucker and Rivers combined to shoot 11-of-20 from three, mostly on open looks.

“James, he’s seen it all,” said D’Antoni before the game. “If we see the triangle-and-two or zone, he’ll pass. He’ll figure it out. We’ll just keep the spacing and the ball will move and hope we knock down shots. It doesn’t really affect what we do.”

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That the Rockets were able to adjust wouldn’t have been overly problematic had the Raptors been able to match them from deep, but they shot only 8-of-26 and trailed 63-55 at the half despite keeping Harden in check.

The Raptors – by habit and somewhat by necessity – play a more free-flowing, ball-moving style. They rank second in the NBA in assist percentage where the Rockets rank 29th.

But Nurse is no snob in these matters. He’s not offended by the Rockets’ approach.

“I would love to have 30 assists and pop it around, play the everybody touches it, share it, cut move, aggressive, all that kind of stuff,” Nurse said. “But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Fittingly, the Raptors tied the game midway through the third quarter on a pleasing possession where the ball moved side-to-side and inside out before Kyle Lowry knocked down a wide-open three to cap off a 12-0 Raptors run to knot the game, 74-74.

The extra touches were welcomed by Harden’s teammates who knew what they signed up for in Houston but can find the standing and watching a bit stale at times too.

Then again, they do get paid for their aggravation.

“I think your job as a pro is to tailor make yourself around the role you’re placed in,” says Rivers. “The alternative is you don’t play well or you don’t play at all.”

“Would I like the ball to move and whatever, sure,” said Rivers. “But James does his thing and we figure it out.”

The Raptors did their thing to limit the league’s greatest scorer, but the Rockets figured it out and made Toronto pay.

The Rockets and their mad basketball science live another day.

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