HOUSTON – Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr made a joke Saturday afternoon about playing chess and moving your pawn two spaces and how assistant coach Luke Walton doesn’t know chess and instead plays checkers.
The Rockets' leading scorer has found his kryptonite of sorts against the Warriors in this best-of-seven series. Golden State sends multiple defenders at Harden, forcing him to pass more and limit the amount of open looks he receives.
In pick-and-roll plays, Harden is normally the ball-handler and the Warriors swarm him, forcing mistakes. In the first two games of the series, Harden scored just nine points on uncontested shots.
Everything changed in Game 3 when he played off the ball more and moved around the court, allowing him to make 6 of 14 uncontested shots. He led the Rockets to a victory with a series-high 35 points, which included the game-winning shot, which ironically enough was slightly contested by Andrew Iguodala.
“It allows other guys to make plays and get their confidence up, especially early in the game like that,” Harden said after Saturday’s practice in preparation for Game 4 on Sunday. “We have to find different ways to attack this team, they’re a good team and you get guys like Patrick [Beverley] and Trevor [Ariza] going early, along with big fella (Dwight Howard), it brings that confidence and they can play that way the entire game.”
Now comes the next piece in this game Kerr is playing with Harden.
How to stop him?
“I’m not going to tell you what we’re going to do,” Kerr said with a smile.
Golden State attacked Harden and kept their hands and arms out of his air space to minimize the foul calls he receives driving to the basket. He did pick up a four-point play on Draymond Green in Game 3.
It’s the little things Harden does, swing an arm into a defender, throw his arms into the air while jerking his head quickly into a pack of defenders to also draw fouls that drives coaches and defenders crazy.
To eliminate the predictability of what they do with Harden, Bickerstaff made changes.
“In pick and roll, they were putting bodies on him and sometimes sending three guys to him,” Bickerstaff said. “Draymond Green does a good job of being in the help spot and being able to find the ball. So we put him in spots [where] the double team will take longer to get there or if you double team there are quicker and easier outlets for him to guys who can knock down shots.”
The Rockets relied on Harden so much for their scoring load. He led the NBA during the regular season in isolation plays at 24.2 percent and number of ISO opportunities at 566.
In pick-and-roll plays, Harden led the team with 606 possessions he was the ball-handler, with Patrick Beverley, the starting point guard, next with 138 plays.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Harden is tied for fifth with 8.7 PPG in the playoffs as the pick-and-roll ball handler. He's shooting 39.1 percent on such plays. He uses this play type 35.2 percent of the time.
So come Sunday, the chance to slow down Harden will be met yet again with something. Kerr could attack him with aggressive measures or just play straight up one-on-one and take that chance.
“No different than what I’ve been seeing all year,” Harden said. “For me, it’s about me getting my shot and focusing in on putting my teammates in position to get a shot off or get an easy points.”