What’s clear is that he has done an ineffective job so far, which isn’t necessarily the same as doing a bad one. We’re looking at a two-game sample size, where offense can triumph over good defense in a way that might not sustain in the long haul. Still, this is staggering production from Harden: 33 points on 20.5 shots, with 10.5 rebounds and 9 assists.
Before getting to the Thompson-on-Harden aspect, I want to address all those assists the Beard has reaped. His passing has been a testament to perceptiveness and adaptability. The Warriors are forcing him to pass differently than he usually does, and he’s thriving despite it.
Harden’s tendency in pick-and-roll situations is to kick it out to shooters. This season, 257 of his passes led directly to 3-point makes. The Warriors have countered this tendency by refusing to drift off the 3-point line. Last series, Jamal Crawford undermined the Clippers' efforts to quell the Rockets’ 3-point barrage by massively helping off the weak side, leaving guys open in the corner. Golden State’s players have been extreme in the other direction. When Harden drives, Warriors guards aren’t crashing down to stop his path, instead daring him to make plays in the paint.
Harden has responded with absolutely brilliant interior passing. His last assist was probably his best: A sailing lob to Dwight Howard that eluded Andrew Bogut’s grasp like a soccer goal that chips the keeper. In these two games, only one of Harden’s passes has resulted in a 3-point make. Those other 17 assists have all been for 2s, many of them close to the hoop. If you told me Houston hits 15 total 3s in the opening two road games, I’d assume disaster. They’ve actually done quite well offensively.
There is another component to the Rockets’ success on offense, and it’s related to the Thompson-Harden faceoff: Harden’s killing it from midrange, as Zach Lowe noted on Grantland. Not only has Harden shot 60 percent on long 2s (he shot 35 percent on such attempts this season), but he’s doing it in a roundabout way: Harden’s dribbling the leather off the ball.
Just as long 2s are inefficient shots that Harden has made efficient in this series, so, too, are shots taken after many dribbles. For the vast majority of players (i.e., everyone but Stephen Curry), dribbling a lot before your windup usually means shooting off-balance, contested, with tired legs. It’s just bad for marksmanship. There’s a reason William Tell didn’t jog around and do a massive backward leap before letting the arrow fly.
In this series, Harden’s doing the equivalent of splitting the apple while doing backflips. It’s a stark contrast from the season, where, according to NBA.com player tracking, Harden managed an effective field goal mark of 46.6 percent on shots taken after seven or more dribbles. In this series, he’s at a 72.2 percent eFG on such shots. Also, these shots account for 44 percent of Harden’s attempts. Overall, the Warriors are getting the holy grail of shots you want Harden taking: long 2s after many, many dribbles. And overall, Harden is absolutely torching them on such shots. He already has made one midrange jumper more than he did in the entire seven-game Clippers series.
After Game 2, Thompson said: "I don't let made or missed shots dictate how I play defense as long as I'm in his body and making him take tough shots." There might be something to that. After going through the video, I would say that Thompson isn’t doing a bad job, but he is doing a flawed job. Thompson is doing Thompson things, doggedly fighting around screens and chasing Harden with full effort. The issue is that effort can be its own trap against a languid performer like the Beard (See: Thompson fouling Harden on the first possession of Game 2).
There’s a jiu-jitsu to Harden. Defenders are trained to leverage their strengths, and Harden uses that against his opponents. He interprets size and length as merely a bigger strike zone for drawing contact. Aggressive defense gets faked into aggressively pursuing nothing or into fouling its focus.
This is why J.J. Redick did such a counterintuitively good job on Harden last series. Redick isn’t long and isn’t experienced in pressuring the ball. So, he positioned himself in front of his mark, gave Harden some room and stayed keyed on where his torso moved. When Harden attempted to draw contact, Redick whipped his hands up and away, like he was playing bloody knuckles.
In contrast, Thompson tries to stay glued to Harden’s jersey, leaving him vulnerable to fakes and push-offs. Defensively, less might be more for Thompson (note: I’d imagine that it’s much easier to dispense advice on guarding Harden than it is to actually do it).
Can Thompson do better? Sure, but I’m not exactly sold on Harden maintaining this shooting stretch. I also think it’s worth it for Golden State to continue to defend this way, generally. Take out Houston’s shooters and force Harden to be a one-man offense. I’ve seen suggestions to double-team Harden, which I believe to be a generally bad move. You don’t want to create 4-on-3 situations when the other team has Howard, ready to flush the lobs that result.
If there is an adjustment to make, it’s probably letting one of Golden State’s many other wings try their luck as the primary defender (Andre Iguodala is the best candidate). I don’t think that’s necessary -- yet. Thompson has gotten torched by Harden and Thompson has made mistakes guarding Harden. He also has not allowed Harden an easy path to this fantastic run. If the Beard keeps draining midrange shots after dribbling the clock out, Golden State has to live with the results. That much is true regardless of the job Thompson's doing.