It’s a puzzle Lakers coach Frank Vogel might eventually have to solve, a long-bearded, left-handed, back-stepping puzzle that the rest of the NBA hasn’t really been able to figure out.
Deciding how to guard Houston’s James Harden isn’t the kind of thing that’s best undertaken with a day of preparation. He’s the NBA’s leading scorer, the kind of player whose countermoves have countermoves.
No one really stands a chance, coaches trying to find the decision that’s the best of a bunch of bad options, until the postseason has rolled around.
For the last four seasons, Harden has been less dynamic, less efficient, less terrifying in the playoffs. Maybe it’s because he carries such a heavy load during the season and the miles just add up. Or maybe, and this is certainly part of it, that with a little time, the puzzle isn’t as impossible.
“Elite offensive players are always the most difficult to prepare for, and the support system that teams put around elite offensive players is what you evaluate as much as the player itself. And how much help can you bring,” Vogel said before the Lakers’ 124-115 victory Saturday. “Certainly … in a playoff series you would have more time to lock in to all the nuances of how they play, and if you’re afforded the luxury of being more creative in terms of working on a unique scheme, potentially, than you would with one day of preparation in the regular season.”
Even though they’re months away, it’s not too early for the Lakers to be thinking about the playoffs, especially on this trip. If things go according to their plans, they easily could see the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals or conference finals. And the games with Boston and Philadelphia, those could be potential NBA Finals matchups.
It’s why Vogel isn’t letting this trip be just a bunch of empty airline miles. Tucked into these games, he’ll look for moments to test lineups, strategies and approaches to try to find a handful of things that could be useful in May and June.
“Absolutely. We do that. We’ve actually done some things over the last three or four weeks that we wouldn’t normally do if we had to win only that game,” Vogel said. “System or scheme development, we call it. We’re going to need to double team in the playoffs this way, let’s do that each game, whether there’s a need to do it or not.”
It couldn’t be a true experiment Saturday night in Houston, not with Anthony Davis sidelined. But the Lakers and Vogel still tried some interesting things.
Early, they guarded Harden fairly straight-up, with Avery Bradley and Danny Green taking turns sitting on Harden’s left hip in an effort to move him away from his dominant hand. As the game progressed, the Lakers started to double team more frequently.
Sometimes, the Lakers would send two wings at Harden late in the clock. Other times, if the situation presented it, they’d use an on-ball stopper like Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a trap with JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard.
“We threw different looks [at Harden]. We trapped him sometimes. Sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we did this, sometimes we did that,” Green said. “We didn’t give him a steady diet of the same thing all night. I think it made him think a little more and make other guys make plays.”
It wasn’t perfect. Some of the Lakers’ double teams were too slow, allowing Harden to move the ball to the open man who would score an easy layup. But largely, the Lakers were effective, especially in the third quarter when Houston scored only 17 points and the game got blown open.
And the Lakers weren’t the only team toying with strategy. Houston coach Mike D’Antoni did his best to mirror LeBron James’ minutes with P.J. Tucker’s, keeping his best defensive option on the court whenever the Lakers’ top offensive one was there too.
Saturday, Vogel’s plans worked better.
Does that mean the Lakers discovered anything special, some secret formula to guarding Harden that will come up huge in the postseason? Nope. Ask around and players still weren’t sure what worked best and when or why.
“I honestly don’t know,” Bradley said with a shrug.