Editor's note: This piece has been updated since it originally posted on Feb. 23.
Sunday marks the 19th time the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have squared off since 2016-17, and looking back at the data from those games provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the NBA's most high-profile matchups: James Harden vs. the Warriors' defense.
The Rockets love to isolate Harden, but when they play Golden State, it's more accurate to say that they love to isolate him against Stephen Curry. Over the past three seasons, nobody has switched onto Harden as much as Curry, and that's no accident.
Aside from splashing all those 3s, the defining trait of the Warriors dynasty might be the tendency to switch defensive assignments. The Rockets try to exploit that tendency by hunting and isolating mismatches more than any other rival.
Look at the switching data from last season's epic seven-game series in the Western Conference finals. It's clear which defender Harden and the Rockets were targeting:
Curry switched onto Harden as many times as the next five Warriors combined. Why? Because it works. The numbers are staggering.
Dating back to the 2016-17 season, more than 2,800 unique NBA player duos have matched up at least 125 times. But within that sample, Harden vs. Curry produces the most extreme stats.
Lest you think I'm exaggerating, consider these four factoids, via Second Spectrum tracking:
No other matchup elicits a higher usage rate by the offensive player
Only one matchup is more likely to include a drive
Only two other matchups produce free throws at a higher rate
No other matchup yields more points for the offensive player
Out of more than 2,800.
Harden vs. Curry is the wildest analytical matchup in the NBA, especially when you consider the stakes involved. After all, these are two MVPs and scoring champs battling for Western supremacy.
When you compare Harden's key matchup numbers with other Golden State defenders, you quickly understand why Houston designs sets to target Curry:
Harden is much more aggressive and much more fruitful against Curry than against any other Warriors player. His usage rate surges to 50.3 -- right around the average for an NBA Jam game, but a cartoonish number for any real-life environment.
With Curry on him, Harden is more than twice as likely to drive the ball to the hoop and get to the free throw line.
The other guys in that table are either strong enough or long enough to dissuade Harden's aggression, but Curry is slight and short compared to his teammates, and he is much less able to slow Harden's rim attacks.
While it's tempting to interpret these data as indictments of Curry's defense, there's something else happening here. It just so happens that all of the other defenders in that table are world-class, and Houston's tendency to isolate and attack Curry at freakish rates says just as much about its respect for those other dudes as it does about Curry. Isolating Curry isn't Houston's best choice, it's really the Rockets' only chance.
Watching the Rockets these days is an exercise in repetition. They love to isolate Harden over and over and over. But against Golden State, that bread-and-butter tactic really makes sense only against Curry or the Warriors' slower bigs such as Kevon Looney. Plus, when Curry is defending Harden, that means dudes such as Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are busy stifling Houston's secondary scorers, further establishing Harden vs. Curry as the best option available.
More than any other defender he faces in the NBA, Harden sees Curry as a pathway to points. Even though Harden averages 48 points per 100 possessions, that number fluctuates a ton depending on the defender, according to Second Spectrum data. Thompson holds Harden to 20 fewer points when he is the primary defender. But against Curry, Harden surges. In the 2018 playoffs, Harden poured in 58 points per 100 possessions against Curry, and a disproportionate amount of those points came from the free throw line.
Over the past three seasons, Harden has matched up against 33 individual players at least 125 times, but only two resul in free throws as frequently as the Curry showdown, per Second Spectrum. Of that group of Harden defenders, Iguodala has done the best work against The Beard, holding him to 20.1 points per 100 possessions on a 23.6 effective field goal percentage. Those are atrocious numbers for Harden, but they serve as another reminder that Iguodala is one of Golden State's most powerful defensive weapons come playoff time.
Still, while the numbers leave little doubt that Harden dominates his individual matchups against Curry, basketball remains a team game. Curry seems more than content to win the wars -- and the titles.