How James Harden unraveled the Cavaliers’ trapping defense

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 09: James Harden
HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 09: James Harden /

The Cavaliers have been a disaster on the defensive end of the floor this season, as they’ve swapped out a handful of decent defenders for a few who are downright awful on that end. Pick-and-roll defense has been a particular problem for the Cavaliers — they’ve given up 391 points on 399 total pick-and-roll possessions, the fourth-worst mark in the league. Against the Rockets on Thursday night, Cleveland used multiple schemes in that regard to try to slow down one of the best offenses in the league, led by James Harden, who still finished the game with 35 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds despite shooting just 8-for-21 from the field.

Houston’s offensive scheme is both revolutionary and incredibly predictable, especially with Chris Paul sidelined with a knee injury. For the most part, Harden handles the ball and runs high pick-and-roll with Clint Capela or Nene. Sharpshooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson spread the floor for Harden, often standing multiple steps behind the 3-point line to force defenders to close out even further than they normally would. Mike D’Antoni played a large part in ushering the NBA into a 3-heavy era, and his team gets up more of them than anybody in the league.

For Cleveland, this means trying to stop Harden in the pick-and-roll isn’t just priority No. 1, it’s the entire list. Early in the game, the Cavaliers trotted out Kevin Love as the primary big man defender in these situations, opting to have him trap high out on the floor in an attempt to get the ball out of Harden’s hands. Cleveland has had success with that strategy over the last few years — Love’s key weakness, his inability to defend in space, is turned into a strength when trapping or blitzing a pick-and-roll, as ball handlers are often caught off guard and are prone to make errors. A handful of teams with slower, less athletic big men are adopting that style after the Cavaliers and Love were effective using this strategy.

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Harden, however, is not most ball handlers. He had very little trouble carving up the Cavaliers’ trapping tactic. Whether it was a quick pass to the opposite wing or a pocket pass to his rolling big man, Harden was hardly breaking a sweat in his evisceration of Cleveland’s chosen pick-and-roll scheme.

Harden hardly needs to take two steps to open the passing lane to Capela, and the rest takes care of itself. Capela, once thought to be a member of an increasingly extinct group of big men who could only finish lobs and miss free throws on offense, has turned himself into a capable passer in these situations. He had his ups and downs against Cleveland but made the correct decision more often than not. Capela’s ability to find the right pass is directly tied with Harden’s willingness to give up the ball when teams trap him.

From Cleveland’s perspective, they got exactly what they wanted out of the trap almost every time. They just weren’t as effective rotating on the back side of the play to take away everything else Houston can do offensively that doesn’t involve Harden. When it works, it’s a beauty: Five guys all rotating on a string, moving as one to remove all advantages gained by the offense.

Harden gladly gives the ball up, as he did throughout the game, but the Cavaliers were able to rotate effectively and Houston ended up with a low-efficiency post-up against Love, who hustled back to his man after trapping Harden beyond the 3-point line. Love fouled Nene on the post-up, but Cleveland would have been happy to let Nene go at Love as often as he liked in the post.

The initial trap from the big man is what triggers the rest of it. If he’s late to get out to Harden or just doesn’t come out high enough, Harden can get rolling toward the rim, where he’s at his most dangerous.

In the above clip, Channing Frye does a decent job on the initial pick-and-roll, but Harden doesn’t give up the ball and gets the advantage on the re-screen from Nene. Frye is one step below the level of the second screen, which gives Harden all the space he needs to get into the lane and cause the Cavaliers all sorts of headaches. Cleveland does a good job scrambling to cover all the shooters in this case, but all the switching leaves Dwyane Wade to box out Anderson under the hoop, and Anderson is able to outmuscle him and put the ball back in the basket off of Ariza’s miss.

Harden gets no credit in the box score, but that entire sequence started with him getting into the lane because Frye laid back just a step too far, a full 12 seconds before Ariza took his 3-pointer in the corner.

In the second half, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue experimented with some different coverages, moving Love off the center assignment and using a more capable one-on-one defender in that spot. This would allow the Cavaliers to seamlessly switch any screen for Harden from Capela or Nene without activating all those rotations from the first half. This creates its own set of problems — once the Rockets adjusted, Capela was able to quickly slip the screen and leave both defenders guarding Harden, not knowing whether a switch had taken place.

Iman Shumpert, who had been switched onto Capela earlier in the possession, thought Jeff Green was going to switch back to Capela, restoring a matchup that made more sense for Cleveland. Green, having never been actually screened, didn’t switch, and Capela got deep position and scored easily over Smith, who smartly rotated over when he saw his two teammates standing on the perimeter in front of Harden. It looks as though Green and Shumpert were simply executing the scheme from the first half, trapping Harden to make him get rid of the ball, but neither of them had their hands up or did anything to make the pass over the top of the defense to Capela any more difficult. Once the ball was already in the air, they made a feeble attempt to deflect it, but it was far too late at that point.

Harden held the ball a lot more in the second half as the Houston offense devolved into isolations for their best player. Harden had Green in the torture chamber over and over in the third quarter, nailing two threes and drawing a foul in a stretch of four possessions early in the period. All in all, Harden isolated nine times in the third quarter and either scored or got to the line on six of those opportunities.

The trapping scheme Cleveland likes to run to placate Love’s deficiencies on the defensive end has its benefits and costs. It usually gets the ball out of the hands of the offense’s most dangerous player, but forces the rest of the Cavaliers to be perfect in their rotations, especially if the rolling big man is a good decision maker.

A secondary effect of the trap is it draws Love, Cleveland’s best rebounder with Tristan Thompson out, further away from the basket, and generally creates rebounding mismatches across the board. The Rockets absolutely feasted on the offensive glass against the Cavaliers, grabbing a gargantuan 44 percent of available offensive rebounds throughout the contest. P.J. Tucker was particularly feisty on the boards down the stretch and helped seal the win for Houston when they couldn’t get as much going offensively through Harden’s late-game isolations.

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Against a vast majority of the league, using Love to trap the ball handler and force other players to beat them with good decisions and pinpoint passing will work wonders, but against the very best of the best, it won’t be enough, as the Rockets showed on Thursday. Harden calmly picked apart Love’s blitz, creating advantage after advantage for Houston while the Cleveland defense scrambled to keep up.