January 20, 2018
Harden's shooting versus the Warriors in the playoffs has been the opposite of what it was in the season.

James Harden and the Houston Rockets have played the Golden State Warriors tough in the playoffs, which is a stark contrast from their regular season matchups, where they lost by an average of 15 points a game. And like the Rockets team, Harden has also been night and day versus the Warriors in the regular season comapred to the playoffs.

In the four games versus the Warriors in the regular season, Harden posted a 51.3% true shooting percentage, 24.1% three point percentage and 32.2% usage percentage, line with the following heat map (courtesy of the excellent nbasavant.com):

James Harden vs. Warriors regular season

But in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, Harden has been even better than his usual dominant self, posting a 68.7% TS%, 44.4% 3PT%, and 29.7% USG line with the following heat map:

James Harden vs. Warriors playoffs

And it’s not just that he’s getting more open looks (is he actually?); he’s hitting his contested ones at a better rate too:

Harden vs. Warriors Regular Season, defender distance <= 4 feet

James Harden vs. Warriors regular season Contested shots

Harden vs. Warriors Playoffs, defender distance <= 4 feet

James Harden vs. Warriors playoffs Contested shots

To answer the question from above, he actually isn’t getting any more Open looks in this series than he did in the regular season versus the Warriors:

Harden vs. Warriors defenseRegular SeasonPlayoffs
Contested Rate58.33%58.54%
Open Rate41.67%41.46%

However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Harden’s better play is that his shot selection has actually gotten worse in the playoffs:

FGA% vs. WarriorsRegSeasonPlayoffs
Restricted Area27.38%21.95%
Threes34.52%21.95%
Moreyball61.90%43.90%
Free Throw Rate0.39290.3902

About 11% more of his shots have come in the paint in the playoffs (non-RA) while he’s also taking ~ 7% more Mid-Range shots. However, those Mid-Range looks Harden is getting in the playoffs are better than the ones he was getting in the regular season versus the Warriors:

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Mid-Range FGAs vs. WarriorsRegular SeasonPlayoffs
Contested Rate63.16%45.45%
Open Rate36.84%54.55%

(Note: Mid-Range attempts are defined slightly different here- any shot > 5 feet from the basket and not a three point shot.)

Finally, the Warriors haven’t been able to turn over Harden as much: 11.2% TO Ratio in the Regular season vs. 9.6% in the playoffs.

But the matchup we were all interested in before the series was how would Klay defend Harden. After all, he was primarily tasked with guarding Harden during the regular season (some statistical evidence of this: Of the 84 shots Harden took in the regular season versus the Warriors, Klay was listed as the closest defender on 30 of them, which far outdistanced Draymond Green’s 13 and Andre Iguodala’s 10. Also, notice how those are the Warriors three best wing defenders.) and he has continued to do so in the playoffs (Of the 41 Harden FGAs in the playoffs, Klay was the closest defender on 20 of them with the next player being Draymond again with 5. Iguodala has 2.)

Harden vs. Klay Thompson

It’s no secret that Klay defended Harden well in the regular season. A lot of those poor numbers you see from Harden in the regular season were a result of Klay’s defense. But what’s happened in the playoffs? It’s been a completely different story.

Harden vs. Klay as the closest defendereFG%FGA
Regular Season41.67%30
Playoffs70.00%20

This is a little deceiving so let’s look at shots where Klay is both the closest defender and actually close to Harden (within 4 feet):

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Harden vs. Klay within 4 feeteFG%FGA
Regular Season35.29%17
Playoffs66.67%12

Klay has still been significantly worse defending Harden in the playoffs. Of course, it’s not completely fair to pin it all on Klay. Harden is a great player after all. And great players will make tough shots. Sometimes, there’s just absolutely nothing you can do about that. But that doesn’t mean Klay is without blame. One of the reasons Harden’s eFG% is so high even when Klay is close to Harden is because Klay isn’t getting his hand up and actively contesting shots the same way he did in the regular season. Per Vantage Sports, we can see how Klay has contested Harden’s shots in the regular season vs. playoffs:

Klay vs. HardenContest+
Regular Season63.9%
Playoffs45.0%

(Note: Vantage defines a Contest+ as Shot defense that is contested (Shot defender is within 3 feet and has a hand up), altered (Shot defender is within 3 feet and his hand is up. Offensive player must change shooting angle or release point while in the air), or blocked.)

Additionally, Klay has had trouble staying in front of Harden on screens in the playoffs whereas in the regular season, he did a much better job. Per Vantage Sports’ Chase Exon:

Regarding Klay’s Keep-in-Front% (KIF%), there’s a pretty interesting divide between his overall KIF% (which include screen situations, help situations, closeout situations, etc.) and then just his KIF% on man-to-man drives. I spot checked about a dozen and saw most of these drives were defending Harden.

Klay vs. RocketsRegSeasonPlayoffs
KIF%55.6%28.6%
Man to Man KIF%70.0%66.7%

The Rockets (i.e., Harden) have been much more effective in using screens to drive past Klay in the playoffs as compared to the regular season.

(For the definition of Keep-in-Front%, see this page.)

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So what does all of this mean going forward? Klay has done a good job on Harden in the past so they may elect to keep him on Harden and hope he picks up his defense like he did in the regular season. But if they choose to move Klay off Harden, they still have the DPOY runner-up in Draymond Green and perennially great Andre Iguodala (still plugging along with a +1.23 DRPM) to throw at Harden should Klay not be up to the task. For what it’s worth, Green has done a good job on Harden in a limited sample size in both the regular season and postseason (33.3% eFG% on 12 FGAs where Green is the closest defender and within 4 feet of Harden).

But the best defense may simply be to weather the storm. While Harden is putting up crazy numbers, as we saw above, he hasn’t really changed his shot selection (if anything, it’s gotten worse) and he’s not really getting any more Open looks either. So it’s entirely possible that Harden’s play levels off somewhere between his “normal” outstanding numbers and what he did versus the Warriors in the regular season (if Klay can pick up his defense).

All stats come from NBA.com and SportVU unless stated otherwise. Heat maps are from nbasavant.com

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Krishna Narsu

Krishna Narsu can also be found at Nylon Calculus, Vantage Sports and the Washington Post's "Fancy Stats" blog. Follow him on twitter @knarsu3.

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