Down six points against the Houston Rockets in the closing minutes of a Dec. 5 game at Scotiabank Arena, the Raptors cleared out on the left side of the court and tossed the ball to their go-to guy, Pascal Siakam. He caught the pass a couple of steps above the block and went to work, a skilled 6-foot-9 scorer eager to exploit Harden with his 4-inch height advantage.
Siakam faced up and took one left-handed dribble before turning his back to the basket again. But Harden didn’t budge.
Siakam pounded his dribble once, twice, three times with his right hand. It was an old-school, Charles Barkley-esque approach, but Siakam was the one getting bullied.
Harden muscled him farther and farther away from the hoop.
After Siakam finally picked up his dribble just inside the elbow, back still to the basket, he pivoted as though he was going to shoot a turnaround over his right shoulder. Harden forced an awkward air ball when Siakam attempted that shot on a post-up in the third quarter, and Siakam was hoping to create some space by getting him to bite on the fake this time. Harden wasn’t fooled.
With Harden still within whiskers’ distance, Siakam settled for a tightly contested jump hook from just inside the free throw line that never had hope of going in. The ball clanked off the front of the rim, too low to even have a chance at a lucky bounce.
“We switch so much that they’ve got to target somebody,” Harden recently told ESPN. “I play so many minutes that they feel like they can just exploit me. I mean, it hasn’t worked.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo eagerly reminded people of Harden’s defensive reputation after the All-Star Game, blurting out after his team’s come-from-ahead loss that their strategy during the fourth quarter was “just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding.”
Harden has been a defensive punch line for the majority of his career, a label attached to him years ago in large part because of moments of embarrassing indifference. The reality: Harden holds up remarkably well when opposing offenses target him in isolations, which happens more often than with any other player in the league.
He’s one big reason the Rockets have gotten away with exclusively playing small ball, daring offenses to choose one of two paths: Try to push them around or go small themselves and play right into Houston’s hand.
During a 9-3 February that included double-digit wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz, the 6-foot-7-and-less Rockets remarkably generated a top-seven defense. Even if they regress closer to league average on that end, this small but powerful defensive unit might be enough to sustain a contender with a relentless offensive machine.
“You can’t try to play matchup basketball,” a Western Conference head coach said. “That’s what they want. You have to beat them with [ball] movement.”
Harden hopes teams take Antetokounmpo’s advice and make picking on him the focal point of their game plan.
“Come try it,” Harden said, “and the s— won’t work.”
THE BIG QUESTION in Houston: Can the Rockets survive defensively playing so small?
It seems that opponents ought to be able to beat up on Houston with a simple game plan. Just dump the ball to your big guys on the block and let them be bullies.
The problem, as Celtics coach Brad Stevens put it: “It’s hard to post linebackers.”
That starts with P.J. Tucker. He’s officially the shortest starting center the NBA has seen in ages, packing 245 pounds and a ton of attitude on his 6-foot-5 frame. Like a middle linebacker, he’s also the loudest voice on the defense, as Tucker’s baritone is constantly barking instructions, communication that is critical in a switch-everything scheme.
Whether Tucker actually plays center in the Rockets’ defense depends on the matchup. It’s more accurate to refer to Tucker as the Rockets’ defensive stopper, as he typically takes the toughest frontcourt assignment. The Rockets coveted Robert Covington — coughing up a first-round pick in addition to center Clint Capela to get him — because they considered him a perfect fit for the style they planned to play, a forward who spaces the floor as a 3-point threat and is capable of defending multiple positions.
The 6-foot-7, 211-pound Covington is more volleyball player than linebacker, a term that Golden State coach Steve Kerr has also used to describe the Rockets. With a 7-foot-1 wingspan and 36-inch vertical leap, Covington is the closest thing to a rim protector in the Rockets’ rotatio