James Harden, Rockets shred Nuggets' trapping defense

Denver had success trapping Harden in the first meeting, but that wasn't the case Tuesday

HOUSTON — Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone pumped the brakes on bold declarations when his squad employed unrelenting trap tactics on Nov. 20 to throw off James Harden and limit Houston to a season-low 95 points.

Now we know why.

What Malone understood all along is you can trap the decade’s leading scorer all you want, but it’s an exercise in futility when the rest of the Rockets knock down shots the way they did on the final night of 2019 in a dominant 130-104 win at the Toyota Center.

“The reality is this: if you put two on the ball, somebody else has to make a play,” Malone explained. “You can’t put two on the ball and guard the other guys. You have to give something up. Some guys [during the last matchup] were hesitant, and that’s exactly what we want, and what they don’t want.”

What the Nuggets got on this night though was a Houston supporting cast itching to make plays.

“We’re just more prepared,” said Harden, who finished with a game-high 35 points, including 20 in the second half on just 10 shots. “We’ve seen that so many times now. We were just in attack mode. Guys were knocking down shots. They’re very aggressive on their closeouts, so guys made the right plays as far as taking their shots, which is obviously making another play for somebody else.”

Take away Harden’s 15 points in the first half, and the rest of the Rockets scorched the Nuggets for 54 points on 22-for-39 shooting as Houston took a 69-52 lead into intermission on the strength of crisp ball movement. Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon — in his second game back since returning from arthroscopic knee surgery — combined for 28 points over the first two quarters.

He’s [like], ‘O.K., [they] put two on the ball,’ [and] he’s trusting his teammates to make a play. It’s probably frustrating for him, but he should take it as a sign of huge respect because people are game planning to get the ball out of the [hands] of the best scorer in recent memory.”

Nuggets coach Mike Malone, on James Harden

“We did a good job of making the right plays,” Westbrook said. “The ball found the right person.”

With Gordon back in the mix, the Rockets not only have another solid shooter, but a secondary ballhandler and creator to pair with Westbrook and take pressure off Harden when teams double him.

“We’re glad to have Eric back,” Harden said. “He’s a knock-down shooter that got to the rim a couple of times. But I think overall, everybody from top to bottom that got in the game were energized on both ends of the ball, and it showed.”

While Denver’s early-season success at trapping and doubling Harden might have provided a blueprint for the rest of the league to copy, it also gave Houston valuable reps at cracking the code against some of the defenses they might see down the road in the playoffs.

Malone was the first coach in the league this season to trap Harden at midcourt from the opening tip to the final buzzer, and although the Nuggets tried to mix it up this go-round, they employed a very similar game plan yielding drastically different results.

Malone mentioned that ever since that November victory, “teams have double-teamed them in every way imaginable.” That’s changed the way Harden and the Rockets are attacking those varying looks. Malone noticed some of the changes on film.

“With James, he’s baiting that double team now,” Malone said. “He’s [like], ‘O.K., [they] put two on the ball,’ [and] he’s trusting his teammates to make a play. It’s probably frustrating for him, but he should take it as a sign of huge respect because people are game planning to get the ball out of the [hands] of the best scorer in recent memory.”

Harden validated Malone’s observations in the second quarter by baiting the double-team, then tossing a cross-court dime to Danuel House Jr. standing in the weakside corner for a 3-pointer as the first-half buzzer sounded.

The 3-pointer was one of the 16 drained by the Rockets on the night against a Nuggets squad that entered the game leading the NBA in 3-point defense, limiting opponents to just 31.4% from beyond the arc. In this outing, the Rockets connected at 47.1% on 3-pointers.

Most importantly, Houston masterfully countered Denver’s double teams on Harden after struggling in the previous meeting.

“We’ve seen it a thousand times, every game,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’re getting more comfortable with it. It shouldn’t work in theory. If you just double him, he throws it to Russell [Westbrook] and it’s 4-on-3. We should score every time. P.J. [Tucker] is getting that little lob now where he gets in the middle sometimes and he’s making plays. I think they’re getting better at it. We’re not surprised by it. They don’t rush.

“You know, you see something that’s kind of odd [at first]. Now it’s not odd, so we should be able to handle it. The only time the doubles have really worked against us was when we were tired and we struggled with our legs. Then we try things, being tired and not real smart [decisions]. When that’s happened, we’ve struggled with it. If we have some energy, it’s been pretty good.”

That certainly was the case against the Nuggets. In fact, Denver all but abandoned double teaming Harden in the second half, and it wasn’t a decision made by the Nuggets coaching staff.

“Yeah, that’s a question for our players because we never told them to go away from it,” Malone said. “Our guys got somewhat tentative, and I thought in Game 1 we committed to it. We were aggressive. It was effective. As I mentioned after Game 1, it was effective that night. By no means did we think we had figured out the riddle of the Sphinx.

“But tonight was a different game, and [Harden] had answers for it. We just became very, very hesitant with trying to employ our game plan. And when you’re hesitant in anything, bad things are gonna happen. Now you’re caught in between, and you’re giving up everything.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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