Keeping Harden Off The Line A Vital Focus

Rowan Kavner

PLAYA VISTA, CALIF. – The Clippers know where limiting James Harden begins.

Harden has a penchant for creating contact, scoring more than 20 points in each of the three games he’s shot at least 10 free throws against the Clippers this year, including the playoffs.

But when the Clippers keep Harden off the line, they tend to keep him in check. The Clippers have held Harden to fewer than 10 free throw attempts four times this season, subsequently holding him to 20 points or fewer in three of those four games. 

“I think Lawrence (Frank) has got a great game plan for him,” said J.J. Redick, who’s been the first line of defense in guarding Harden. “We know we have to stop him and limit his downhill attacks as much as possible. I’m doing the best I can to follow that game plan.

“Specifically, I’m trying not to give him angles when he is (isolating) me. When he does get past me or get a step on me, just pull my hands back and keep him off the free-throw line.”

The Clippers are one of five teams Harden averaged exactly 20 points or fewer against during the regular season. Including the playoffs, Harden’s only reached his season average in points per game (27.4) twice in seven matchups against the Clippers.

That begins with Redick, who understands his primary goal in defending Harden. The only two times Harden’s crossed the 30-point mark against the Clippers this year is when he’s taken at least 15 free-throw attempts.

Those are also the only two times Redick’s committed at least four fouls against the Rockets this year.

“Game 2 when he scored big, he got to the free-throw line I think 15 times,” Redick said. “When he had 34 in the regular season last time we played, he got to the free-throw line 18 times. So the games when he scores big, it’s because he’s getting to the line in double digits. That’s primarily the focus is to stop him from doing that. Easier said than done, obviously.”

But as tough as that might be, Redick hasn’t done poorly in that regard.

He only committed one foul in Game 1, which resulted in a win. He only committed one foul in Game 3, which resulted in a win. Redick managed to play Harden and the Rockets without committing any fouls in the first regular-season matchup between the teams, and that also resulted in a win.

“He’s been great,” said head coach Doc Rivers. “It’s really been a collective effort. It’s J.J., but the team helps. I think our guards are doing a great job of pulling in, because we know there’s no one man that’s going to guard James Harden, and we’ve given him that. We understand that.”

The “Harden-stopper” label has jokingly been thrown around for Redick, but he knows how tough Harden is to guard and how much of an advantage it is to know Harden has to then deal with DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin if he gets beat off the dribble. When Redick and the big man who’s helping don’t foul, it creates problems for Harden.

Griffin said that’s forced Harden to make shots over the top of the defense.

That, or it makes Harden do something he doesn’t want to with the ball. The Clippers have forced at least five turnovers from Harden in each of the first three games of the series.

The deflections on passes from Harden so far this series might be what excites Rivers the most about watching how his defense has played against the Rockets’ star. When they limit Harden’s trips to the line and his passing lanes, it puts pressure on the Rockets to find other ways to score.

“J.J.’s done a great job, but it’s not 1-on-1,” said Chris Paul. “J.J. would probably be the first person to tell you that James is not a guy you can guard with one person. It’s total team defense. Our bigs have been amazing loading and helping. We’re playing really good team defense.”