HOUSTON — James Harden blamed himself more than he credited the Milwaukee Bucks‘ excellent execution of their unique defensive scheme for his struggles to score in the Houston Rockets‘ 117-111 season-opening loss Thursday night.
Harden, the NBA’s scoring champion in each of the last two seasons, finished with only 19 points on 2-of-13 shooting in the loss. He didn’t have a field goal in the second half, when he was held to four free throws and the Bucks rallied from a 16-point deficit to win at the Toyota Center.
“Give them credit, they came back and played well in that second half, but this one is on me,” said Harden, who had 14 assists and seven turnovers. “I wasn’t aggressive enough, and that’s what it was.”
The Bucks firmly believe that their defense had a lot to do with Harden’s problems. As they did in their two wins over the Rockets last season, Milwaukee had Harden’s primary defender shade his strong hand so heavily that their feet faced his left hip, making it difficult for him to launch his lethal step-back jumper and funneling him into traffic, where shot blockers Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo usually awaited.
“He’s such a great player, you have to kind of think, ‘Can we do something a little unconventional, something a little different?'” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s seen everything. He’s seen us a couple of times last year. I thought in the second half the discipline was better.”
Harden had 15 points in the first half despite not getting his first field goal until there was 2:06 remaining in the second quarter. He was 10-of-10 from the free throw line by halftime.
Harden missed all seven of his shots from the floor in the second half — including six 3-pointers — and didn’t score until a trip to the free throw line with 1:26 remaining.
“I trust the philosophy that the coaches had, and it worked out,” said Bucks shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who was the primary defender on Harden for much of the game in his Milwaukee debut. “This is a different kind of situation for me. I felt like [in previous seasons] that I had to make the stop, I had to get the stop. That’s not the case with this team. We’ve got a team full of defenders with length and activity. It’s truly a team defense. That’s a credit to everybody in this room.”
Harden insisted that the Bucks’ scheme wasn’t a factor in him attempting fewer field goals than he did in any game last season, when his scoring average of 36.1 points per game was the highest by any NBA player in three decades.
“It’s me,” said Harden, who averaged 32.5 points but shot only 39.3 percent from the floor in the Rockets’ two losses to the Bucks last season. “I can get any shot I want to. … It’s the first game of the season, so I’ve got to get my rhythm as well. I wish I would just go out there and make every shot and have my swag up like I will be. It’ll come.”
The reigning MVP offered a dissenting view from the visitors’ locker room on how the Bucks affected Harden, who Antetokoumpo called “one of the best offensive players today in our league.”
“We just tried to make him drive the ball and make him make the pass,” said Antetokounmpo, who had 30 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists before fouling out with 5:18 remaining in the game. “The less shots he takes, the better for us. I think guys like [Eric] Bledsoe, George Hill, Wes did a great job, not just send him to Brook, send him inside, send him to the crowd. He had a tough night and, hey, guys like that, you know, they’re going to get 20 shots up. But we gotta just try to make it as tough as possible and make his teammates make a play, not him.”
Rockets sixth man Eric Gordon, in particular, failed to make the Bucks pay for their defensive game plan. Gordon went 4-of-19 from the floor and 3-of-12 from 3-point range, missing several good looks generated by Harden’s passes after penetrating.
“The way they play, the rest of the guys have got to step up,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “That’s their game plan. Now, I think James will during the season be more ready to do it, but they just collapsed on James. He was finding people — had 14 assists and would have had about 20 if we hit our shots. They chose to play that way and it worked out for them.”