Oscillating from chasing over with drop coverage and switching to blitzing and even mixing in some box-and-one and 2-3 zone, the Pacers threw the entire kitchen sink at James Harden on Wednesday night, attempting to show the world-class scorer as many looks as possible. The only problem was, in appearing mostly unfettered by the constant changes, Brooklyn’s isolation maestro merely turned on the garbage disposal, carving up the cornucopia of coverages for 40 points and 15 assists.
On the one hand, this is what James Harden, as a highly skilled and devastatingly deceptive playmaker, does – especially in the absence of elite wing defenders. After all, he repeatedly hunted Doug McDermott, breezed past Justin Holiday, overwhelmed T.J. McConnell, and physically wore down Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, extending the line of scrimmage 30+ feet from the basket, while orchestrating inverted pick-and-rolls with Jeff Green. Consequently, given all the inherent roster-based obstacles that were already working to limit the margin for error on defense, including Myles Turner’s trouble with fouls as well as execution against switches, there wasn’t allowance for even minor errors, let alone some of the self-flagellation that occurred on the glass and elsewhere.
For example, giving up chest-to-ear advantage all the way to the rim, despite having to duck under after getting shook at the point of attack, isn’t great.
Nor is switching without protecting against the slip.
Or overcommitting to the wrong side of a pick.
That said, some of those miscues, along with the seven offensive rebounds Indiana surrendered in the fourth quarter, can probably still, in part, be attributed to the disconnect that was present between the available personnel and the match-up. Like switching, blitzing requires length, mobility, and cohesiveness — all of which are difficult to cull for a team that rifles through coverages while either playing two centers together or splitting them between various groupings of combo guards and undersized forwards, leading to vulnerability, both in the paint and on the glass, in 4-on-3 situations.
For that reason, if the Pacers were going to be at a disadvantage attempting to “stop” Harden, then they needed to better control what they could control — or, at least not handicap themselves. Consider this possession from the first quarter, for instance.
Is it really necessary to guard DeAndre Jordan like he’s an elite stretch shooter?
To be fair, it would be one thing if this was just a one-off — a blunder from Turner that resulted in free points. But this isn’t even the first time this sort of mishap has happened this week. Sabonis got burned defending Paul Millsap with his back to the ball in the same scenario in Denver on Monday night.
And it also happened as far back as January, when Ivica Zubac effectively said cha-ching, cashing-in on a quick basket cut behind an unsuspecting Sabonis.
Plus, here’s the thing: Even when the big isn’t the direct benefactor at the rim, the apparent directive to face-guard at the ball-side elbow and block creates needless blind spots. Here, for instance, Sabonis has absolutely no idea that Ben Simmons is about to glide to the basket, which requires T.J. McConnell to provide emergency assistance from the opposite side of the floor, opening up a wide open three for Matisse Thybulle.
Or, how about in LA, when LeBron basically used Justin’s stance like a football blocking sled to back up the coverage and collapse the defense.
All of these instances are akin to the one-size-fits-all ball pressure approach against Ben Simmons, Giannis Anteotokounmpo, and Draymond Green. Regardless of whether the possession ends with points, if the big standing at the elbow isn’t a threat to shoot, like DeAndre Jordan, Ivica Zubac, and Dwight Howard, this type of aggressive coverage isn’t disruptive; it’s conducive, especially since, in most instances, the face-guarding is happening before the official has even handed the ball to the inbounds passer.
Granted, assuming that position wouldn’t be quite as abnormal if they were inverting (i.e. pre-swapping assignments) and jump-switching, but as Sabonis and Justin demonstrate, here, they typically try to stay attached on down screens.
If that’s the case, then against actual stretch shooters like Millsap, why not at least wait until the inbounds passer has the ball to step out and smother, rather than telegraphing the coverage? Or, better yet, just play ball-u-man on the catch, putting counter pressure on a potential down screen, even at the risk of having to take a couple steps to contest from deep.
Otherwise, and specifically in the example against Jordan, who has attempted exactly zero threes for his career, the Pacers basically handed the Nets two points (with a numbers advantage!) in a game in which they repeatedly paid the price for being outnumbered as well as defending one-on-one. In the end, the Pacers lost by nine, trailing by only two possessions, 115-111, with 1:00 to play. That single possession wasn’t the difference, but with James Harden constantly reshaping the defense in the half-court, it certainly didn’t help to give up an easy score when he wasn’t even standing in bounds.
As is the case with going overboard with overs, the Pacers could stand to be more judicious with how they channel their all-out aggression, and perhaps stop being in denial about the impacts of being in denial — at least on sideline outs of bounds plays.