Clues on How to Guard James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Milwaukee Bucks were able to complete the season sweep of the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night, defeating them 108-94. The Bucks’ defense threw the Rockets out of sync (more on that shortly). That, combined with an ice-cold shooting performance (16-of-52 from three) led to a low scoring affair. It was just the 12th time this season the Rockets failed to score 100 or more points.

They now have a 3-9 record in those games.

Tuesday night’s showdown was highly anticipated for a couple of reasons. For starters, the teams were humming on both sides of the floor. Entering the game, the Rockets (plus-7.7) and Bucks (plus-7.6) ranked second and third respectively in net rating since the All-Star Break, with both teams boasting top ten marks in offensive and defensive rating.

There was also the MVP battle between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. While it’s irresponsible to have a March game swing the race, it was hard to ignore the opportunity for a statement to be made.

Giannis’ case was based on unparalleled box-score production—he’s the only member of the 27-12-6-1-1 club—and team success. Harden’s claim to fame is an obscene offensive workload while doubling as, arguably, the league’s most underrated defender.

Giannis won this battle, dropping a casual 19-14-4 while finishing as a plus-7. Harden scored 23 points, though it took 26 shots to get there. He did chip in with 10 rebounds and seven assists, but the Rockets were outscored by 14 with him on the floor.

The Bucks May Have Something Here

Mar 7, 2018; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) compete for a loose ball in the third quarter at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Harden is the head of the snake for the Rockets. Every single team in the league goes into a game hoping to slow him down. That, of course, is easier said than done.

Harden has torched every team for 30 or more points at least once this season. He’s practically unguardable in isolation and is one of the NBA’s best passers. There isn’t much you can do to stop him, but the Bucks may have found an unconventional way to limit his impact.

Shading Harden to his right isn’t a new concept. How dramatic the Bucks go about the process is what makes it interesting.

Just like the first meeting in January, the Bucks didn’t just have their defenders play Harden’s left side, they positioned themselves slightly behind him to literally force him downhill. A big, most notably Brook Lopez, would wall off the rim.

The idea is to force Harden into pull-up twos, floaters or contested layups with his right hand. Harden is skilled enough to make those shots, but they don’t hurt defenses like his stepback threes or lefty drives do.

Harden shot 8-of-17 from two, 1-of-9 from three and only attempted five free throws on the night. He took nine shots at the rim and eight from floater range. The split is almost never that close, but it’s a credit to the Bucks forcing Harden into the shots they wanted him to take.

Eric Bledsoe Deserves More Respect

On that front, maybe no defender deserves more credit than Eric Bledsoe. Via Second Spectrum tracking data, Bledsoe defended Harden on 37 possessions. Harden scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting on those.

Bledsoe followed the shade-heavy gameplan but mixed in some stunts and swipes to keep Harden off balance. He did a great job of funneling Harden inside and even came away with a “Manu”.

Bledsoe also got it done on the other end. He led the Bucks in points (23) and assists (7), marking the eighth time he racked up at least 20 points and seven dimes in a game this season. His shot profile—15 of his 17 shot attempts came at the rim or beyond the arc—would make Daryl Morey proud if his team wasn’t getting torched.

The Giannis-Shaq Comparison Has Merit

Shaquille O’Neal casually dubbed Giannis the “Greek Diesel.” I’m on the fence about it being a great nickname, but it’s certainly fitting. Giannis is arguably the most dominant inside presence since Shaq’s peak nearly two decades ago.

While Giannis had a relatively quiet scoring night overall, he still managed to convert 7-of-11 tries at the rim. Short of sending three defenders to help, there wasn’t much the Rockets could do to contain him.

Of course, sending that much help leads to possessions like this:

That’s a simple pick-and-roll that the Rockets try to ICE down the left side of the floor.

PJ Tucker steps up to cut off Sterling Brown’s driving lane. Not only does Chris Paul rotate to his right and bother a potential dump-off to Giannis, Clint Capela also leaves Brook Lopez to provide support. Tucker tips the pass, but can’t come up with the steal. Brown eventually hits a wide-open Lopez for the three, mostly because of the fear Giannis induces whenever he’s in the paint.

On the year, Giannis is averaging 8.0 makes at the rim per game while converting 74.1 percent of those looks.  Shaq’s highest registered total was 7.6 makes during the 1997-98 season, and he converted 70.4 percent of his looks. The database on only goes back to the 1996-97 season, so we’re missing Shaq’s first four seasons.

It’s very possible he could’ve topped that mark early in his career. But the fact that this is even a discussion is a testament to how dominant a force Giannis is.