The San Antonio Spurs have a defensive weapon that can contest their Southwest Division rival James Harden and the Houston Rockets for years to come.
Only a handful of players in NBA history have the offensive firepower supplied by former MVP James Harden. If this league had an Offensive Player of the Year award, Harden would be a four-time recipient by this point. He’s a one-man scoring machine that transforms the offensive intensity of his entire team. Because of the threat that Harden poses, the San Antonio Spurs need to come equipped with a strategy to guard him.
Luckily for them, there’s one player on the Spurs’ roster that handled Harden as well as possible: Starting point guard Dejounte Murray. Outside of Thunder rookie and former ASU Sun Devil Luguentz Dort, there isn’t anyone who has defended Harden with the proficiency that Murray did. Harden has only taken 13 or more shots against 17 players this season. Of that bunch, Murray held Harden to the second-lowest field goal percentage behind Dort, who held Harden to 2-of-13 shooting in the regular season.
When defender by Murray, Harden shot only 3-of-18 on the season for 16.7 percent. Using his high basketball IQ, blistering speed and graceful anticipation, Murray stuck with Harden around the perimeter and closed out on his 3-point attempts without fouling too often. Harden shot just 2-of-13 from range when guarded by Dejounte this season.
— Air Alamo (@AirAlamo) August 24, 2020
This is by design — Head coach Gregg Popovich throws various looks at Harden throughout the game. San Antonio’s only strategy isn’t just to throw Murray his way and expect him to handle the pressure. The Spurs can counteract the Rockets’ small-ball lineup with one of their own that includes four players who can tackle the challenge: Murray, Walker, White and Johnson.
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When guarded by the lengthy and elusive Lonnie Walker IV, Harden shot 2-for-12 from the floor. Harden fared a bit better against White, who still allowed Harden to shoot only 38.5 percent. Though Johnson hasn’t matched up against Harden yet in his NBA career, the rookie held Russell Westbrook scoreless and isn’t afraid to tackle any defensive assignment.
This young Spurs team, at its best, is prepared to deal with almost any small-ball lineup with versatile and pesky defensive players. That, combined with a rim defender like Jakob Poeltl defending the paint is a recipe for success in today’s NBA. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the rotation is going to look like next year and San Antonio is slated to return many players who don’t align with this movement.
However, we’ve seen glimpses of what works and what doesn’t. San Antonio managed to in the season series against Houston this year off the hard work of their young players.
So long as the young guards are let loose, the Spurs have a legitimate strategy to slow Harden’s game and a proven leader to tackle the assignment in Murray.