The Turn Of The Screw: Behind P.J. Tucker's All-Court Pressure, Miami's James Harden Defense Gets In Formation
The common thought headed into Game 1 was that, without Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers were going to need something close to the James Harden who won Most Valuable Player with the Houston Rockets to have a chance at stealing a game in Miami. That the 76ers, lacking in quality defensive options to replace their best player in the middle of the floor, would need to cook with gasoline on the other end.
As far as the reasoning goes, it was bang on.
In the 17 minutes that DeAndre Jordan, who started both halves, was on the court, the 76ers allowed 159.4 points per 100 possessions. In Paul Millsap’s five minutes, 127.3. They found some traction with Paul Reed, some zone and running Georges Niang at center, but that’s 22 minutes Philadelphia played with what would be well-below league-worst defense. Granted the HEAT’s halfcourt offense only produced 86.4 points-per-play – an issue to discuss another day, but an ongoing issue nonetheless – in part because they only shot 9-of-36 (25 percent) from three, but with transition attacks and 15 offensive rebounds, Miami scored at a rate (115.2 per 100) above their season average. The defense, as predicted, was an issue.
The 76ers needed their offense to win the race. They needed Harden to be great. The HEAT held up a rather polite sign that read, ‘No, Sir. Not Today.’
In Houston, Harden shouldered a massive offensive load. His usage rate – which defines the percent of your team’s possessions that you shoot, draw a foul or commit a turnover – during his MVP 2017-18 season was 36.1 percent. By the next season, it spiked to 40.5 as Harden attempted nearly 25 shots a night on his way to 36 points a game in 2018-19. And that’s not even accounting for his assists, of which there were many. The Rockets were the No. 1 and No. 2 offense in those two seasons. Harden carried the weight and ran a marathon with it.
Also on those teams, in all those practices and shootaround and workouts, was P.J. Tucker. That’s who Erik Spoelstra asked to pick up Harden full court from the very first possession on Monday night, hounding the former MVP every step of the way despite turning 37-years old on May 5.
“He’s been on the same team as James, so he knows his tendencies better than anybody else on our team,” said Bam Adebayo, who allowed just 0.57 points-per-screen in the pick-and-roll and was otherwise casually dominant against a depleted frontline. “It just shows the sacrifice that he’s willing to give up. Picking up 94 feet is not easy in the NBA, especially playing 30 minutes a game. It’s just the utmost respect for him.”
With a considered and disciplined scheme behind him, Tucker led the way toward Harden taking just 13 shots (for 16 points) and posting a usage rate of 26.3 – which would have tied for a season-low during Harden’s 2017-18. The playmaking, with five turnovers to five assists, didn't compensate for the relatively low volume. When Embiid was off the court during the regular season, Harden’s usage jumped to 36 percent. This wasn’t that.
“They need him to be James Harden,” Tucker said. “It is my job to try to make it tough, but he is going to score and he is going to take shots and be aggressive, and I am just going to try to make it tough.”
For an idea of just how committed Tucker was to not giving Harden airspace, look where he’s standing, the way he’s angled relative to the ball, on this possession with Harden 20 feet away from just about anything.
The scheme in question wasn’t all that different from what they did to Trae Young in the first round when Young had what was effectively the worst five-game stretch of his career. In that series Miami took what they typically do in crowding the gaps on either side of the ball and dialed it up another degree, constantly showing Young three bodies no matter what matchup he may have sought on a switch. As a result, Young rarely got going downhill, his drives diminished, and his shot profile reduced largely to off-the-dribble threes.
With the added component of Tucker’s wet-blanket pressure and full-court physicality, the look against Harden was largely the same. No matter how many screens he used or which defender wound up on him after the dust settled, he rarely looked up and saw one body. He saw a formation. One anchor, two wingers. A pentagram of deterrence.
“They did a really good job of showing their bodies, crowding the ball,” Harden said.
“We want him to take difficult shots,” Adebayo said, agreeing to the comparison of the scheme for Young. “We don’t want him to get easy looks and get going.”
Of Harden’s 13 shots, seven were from three. All of them above-the-break. He did get downhill a few times, because unlike the more finesse-focused Young he’s more accustomed to creating and playing through contact. It was not, by any measure, dominant.
It was also not without a cost.
Part of the reason for the scheme working so well against Atlanta was that while the Hawks had plenty of shooters who could take advantage of Young’s on-ball gravity, they didn’t have nearly as many attackers. The 76ers have Tyrese Maxey.
Take this possession, for example. Harden draws the extra attention. As he swings it to Maxey, Maxey doesn’t wait a beat to allow the defense to regain its shape. He’s off to the races, darting right down the crease that opens for a split-second and closes just as quickly.
Or look at this transition possession, where Tucker and the defense are loaded up on Harden and Maxey attacks the space liberated by all that tilted attention.
Maxey isn’t a problem that will go away, but his attacks were a price worth paying. Those plays were too few and far between as the 76ers finished with an Offensive Rating of 97.9 – making the HEAT the only team other than Toronto (twice) to hold Philadelphia below 100 points per 100 possessions since the Harden trade. Harden had 67 touches and the 76ers scored 0.72 points-per on any possession where he put his hands on the ball, down from 1.07 during the regular season.
Matters certainly weren’t helped by Philadelphia shooting 6-of-34 from three – Miami was only 9-of-36 themselves, but that’s a nine-point difference in a 14-point game – as Harden, a genius-level passer, often made the right read only to watch a teammate miss. A component of that is the 76ers having a three-point Shot Quality that would have ranked No. 30, by a decent margin, during the regular season, so it’s not as if the HEAT were giving up a ton of open looks. Still, they aren’t going to shoot quite so miserably all series. A few more makes might grease the wheels and give Harden a little more breathing room.
“I think shot making is what opens the floor for our entire team,” Harden said. “We make a couple of shots and that opens it up even more.”
Harden will always be able to get to his stepback. Adebayo may contest it better than others, but if that’s the shot Harden wants that’s the shot he’s going to get. The same as it was with Trae Young and his 30 footers. Some are going to fall. At the right moments, they can even win you a game. They just aren’t going to sustain your offense for 48 minutes.
Other words, if Harden figuring it out translates to the same shots falling that might be something Miami can live with. The concern is only if Harden finds a true, consistent exploit – something Young wasn’t able to do.
“He's a great player and a great mind,” Spoelstra said. “He’ll also go through his own adjustments. It’s not like we’re surprising him on anything. He’s literally seen every single coverage. He doesn’t get sick at sea. It’s not like you can speed him up, you can’t rattle him.”
Maybe we’re thinking about this all wrong. Maybe the 76ers don’t need flashback Harden while Embiid is out. Maybe the version of him who embraces the true point-guard role, as he’s done since being traded to Brooklyn last season, can absorb Miami’s scheme and create a sustainable offense for his teammates. Maybe Houston Harden isn’t the goal.
Maybe. The HEAT, turning the screws from the jump, appear to be betting otherwise.