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How the Milwaukee Bucks Can Guard James Harden

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The Milwaukee Bucks face the undesirable task of defending the Houston Rockets and, more specifically, James Harden. How will they attack this challenge?

Houston Rockets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks tip-off the 2019-20 season on the road against the Houston Rockets on Thursday night. The matchup has all the makings of high profile game, as it features two MVP candidates leading teams with NBA Championship aspirations. The Bucks’ biggest challenge will be creating a game plan to slow down James Harden and his new co-pilot in Russell Westbrook.

Exactly how the Bucks defend the one-time MVP will be especially intriguing considering the defensive scheme they implemented last season. For those of you who’re unfamiliar, here’s a quick clip from their last contest:

Despite Harden bringing the ball up the middle of the floor, Eric Bledsoe concedes the entire right side of the court, giving Harden no other choice but to drive with his right hand. As he attacks the hoop, Brook Lopez hesitantly leaves his man on the right block to contest the layup attempt. As Harden focuses on the seven-footer in front of the basket and rises for a left-handed layup, Bledsoe times the shot perfectly and volley-ball spikes it to the floor. Bledsoe’s handling of Harden wasn’t uncommon, as he often focused on taking away a step-back three and forced him to use his right hand in driving to the basket.

On Tuesday, Budenholzer announced Bledsoe will return to the starting lineup against the Rockets following the oblique injury he suffered in the preseason. That’s great news for Milwaukee considering their point guard’s role in guarding the 2018-19 MVP runner-up. Unfortunately, NBA’s matchup stats were, for some reason, unavailable at the time of this writing so I’m unable to give you exact numbers on which Bucks’ guarded Harden last season. Just know, Bledsoe took on the Lion’s share with Hill and Brogdon picking up the spare possessions.

Overall, Harden averaged an insane 48.2 points and 10 assists per 100 possessions while posting a 61.6 percent true shooting percentage, cementing his place as one of, if not the, best offensive players in the game today. However, those numbers plummeted to 38.2 points 7.6 assists and a 51.6 true shooting percentage vs Bledsoe and the Bucks. His turnovers also went up from 6.6 vs the NBA to 7.6 vs Milwaukee. Oh, and the Bucks smacked the Rockets by double-digits in both of their games.

A large part of Milwaukee’s success against Harden came as a result of the extreme defensive game plan they carried out. Bledsoe invited Harden to use his weaker right hand to drive to the hoop and tried to prevent him from getting threes off going to his left. This adjustment took some getting used to and the Bucks constantly kept Houston’s star on his heels.

Even with Harden in the right corner, George Hill sits on his left hand and gifts him a driving lane into the waiting arms of Lopez who’s camping on the right block. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo ignores his man in the weakside corner and creeps toward the paint in order to take away an anticipated pass to Clint Capela while the other two Bucks slink toward the elbows in order to help on a skip pass.

Harden falls right into the defense’s trap and heads toward the menacing shot-blocker. It’s a difficult floater from the baseline so he tries to sneak a bounce pass to his big man. He telegraphs it a bit too much, as it’s easily stolen and taken to the other end of the court for a fastbreak alley-oop.

Harden will continue to get his-that’s how great of a player he is. However, look for the Bucks to implement a similar scheme in order to slow him down. Milwaukee will likely look to Bledsoe to carry the load once again and take on the primary on-ball responsibilities. When he’s not on the court or able to handle the requirements, George Hill and Wesley Matthews will presumably be the next men up. Their job is simple, run Harden off the three-point line and rely on the shot-blocking bigs behind them to clean up the rest.

Speaking of the bigs, they’re critical ingredients to success in this recipe. With the guard’s focus on limiting the threat of a three-point shot, that still leaves a vulnerable spot around the rim-an area Harden has worked incredibly hard at improving in the past two years. After only making 35 percent of his 173 shots in the “short mid-range” in 2017-18, that number ballooned to 46 percent on 304 attempts in 2018-19 according to Cleaning the Glass. Fortunately, the Bucks were able to neutralize that area as well.

With the rock way above the three-point line and Bledsoe almost playing behind the ball-handler on his left side, Capela creeps up to set a ball-screen. Even though he’s not needed, he eventually gets in the way of Bledsoe, as Harden snake dribbles back to his left hand.

By this time, Antetokounmpo is oriented to the situation and inserted himself into the equation. As Harden is dribbling toward the baseline, he surveys the court and notices two intimidating presences in front of him in the form of the Greek Freak and Splash Mountain, as Bledsoe is quickly recovering. With Antetokounmpo almost overhelping in the case of a lob, Khris Middleton is tasked with guarding his man AND Antetokounmpo’s on the three-point line in the case of a skip pass. Thinking he has enough room to squeeze out a shot, Harden attempts a floater over Lopez which is quickly sent back.

What makes the Bucks’ defensive scheme more successful than others is not only their ability to put an elite on-ball defender on Harden AND a quality shot-blocking seven-footer on the court, but also the presence of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate lurking in the shadows. The three work in tandem with the other two defenders on the court to make life difficult from the two areas Houston wants to exploit-the three-point line and at the basket. Milwaukee will now be able to trot Robin Lopez on the floor as well in order to ensure they have a quality rim protector at all times.

The big question for the Rockets is how Russell Westbrook fits into this equation. He’s certainly a player the Bucks can drift from when Harden has the ball given his inconsistencies from behind the arc. The real problem he poses is when the ball’s in his hands. He’s still an elite driver and, outside of Bledsoe, Milwaukee might not have someone with the quickness to stay in front of him. Given the Bucks only have one Bledsoe, it presents yet another challenge for their defense. They could elect to put Wesley Matthews on Westbrook and ask him to sink off him in hopes of preventing drives and forcing jump shots. They could also flip-flop those matchups with Bledsoe on Westbrook and Matthews on Harden.

Perhaps, the most likely outcome is for Bledsoe to share the court with Hill when the two Rockets’ stars are on the floor together. This might not be as often as you think, as Houston will likely want to split the time their studs share the court. This will both ensure a better on the court fit, and that they have one of their two best players in the game at all times. Regardless, Hill is a superior defender to Matthews when it comes to guarding quicker points, and this would allow him to match up with Westbrook while Bledsoe is occupied with Harden.

No matter which way you slice it, the Bucks are in for a challenge against the Rockets on Thursday night. They flashed a defensive scheme that was mostly successful against Houston last season, but you’d better believe Mike D’Antoni will have some counters to expose the weaknesses he saw on film. Buckle up, this will be a fun ride!