HOUSTON — Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone considers his preferred defensive strategy of double-teaming Houston Rockets star James Harden, sometimes as far as 40 feet away from the basket, to be a form of flattery.
“I know it’s probably frustrating for him,” Malone said before Tuesday night’s game at the Toyota Center. “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 agreed that teams deciding that he needs to be double-teamed, often in areas of the floor that are virtually unprecedented for NBA defenses, is a compliment of him.
“For sure,” Harden said after scoring 35 points on 10-of-17 shooting in the Rockets’ 130-104 win over the Nuggets. “Me and coach [Mike] D’Antoni talk about it all the time. That’s means that I’m doing something right, [that] I’m pretty good.”
The strategy certainly didn’t frustrate Harden and the Rockets on Tuesday night. Houston shot 52.9% from the floor and 47.1% from 3-point range in the rout of the Rockets, a stark contrast to the first meeting between the two Western Conference powers this season.
The 105-95 road loss to the Nuggets on Nov. 20 is the Rockets’ lowest-scoring game this season. Denver was the first team to employ frequent double-teams against Harden from the opening tip and held the NBA’s leading scorer to 27 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Several Houston opponents have followed suit since.
Denver doubled Harden for the majority of the first half Tuesday night — sometimes bluffing but usually sending a second defender at him — and the Rockets picked apart the Nuggets’ defense. Houston scored 69 points in the first half despite Harden attempting only seven shots from the floor.
“We were just more prepared,” said Harden, who also had six assists and showed no signs of being slowed by a sprained toe that caused him to sit out Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. “We’ve seen that so many times now, so guys know what to do.”
Russell Westbrook had 18 of his 28 points in the first half, frequently exploiting Denver’s double-teams on Harden by attacking the paint once Harden gave up the ball. Crisp ball movement repeatedly generated open looks for the Rockets’ shooters, with Houston making 9 of 16 3-point attempts in the half.
“We’ve seen it a thousand times. Every game,” D’Antoni said of doubles on Harden. “Guys were making some shots. We’re getting more comfortable with it. Russell was really good. It shouldn’t work in theory. If you just double [Harden], he throws it to Russell and it’s 4-on-3. We should score every time. … We’re not surprised by it. They don’t rush. You know, you see something that’s kind of odd. Now it’s not odd, so we should be able to handle it.”
The Rockets didn’t see many doubles on Harden in the second half. He exploited the Nuggets’ more traditional coverage, scoring 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting after halftime.
Malone indicated that the Nuggets went rogue on defense after halftime, saying that he didn’t change the strategy of frequently doubling Harden.
“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 [the Nov. 20 win over the Rockets] 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. But we just became very, very hesitant with trying to employ our game plan. And when you’re hesitant in anything bad things are going to happen. Now you’re caught in between, and you’re giving up everything.”