The conversation, criticism, and internet amusement that’s long consumed James Harden’s defense took a distant backseat behind everything he does when the ball touches his hands this season. The Houston Rockets won 65 games with him as the league’s probable MVP, and leader in scoring, PER, Win Shares, and usage. No individual is more responsible for them being six wins away from an NBA championship.
But no matter how spectacular Harden’s offense is, it will never completely eclipse his standing as a relative weak link. According to Cleaning the Glass, for six straight regular seasons, Harden’s team has been better on defense when he doesn’t play. When he’s on the floor, his teams (including the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder) have either been average or bad on that side of the ball.
Half of that equation changed in 2018. The Rockets were actually able to get stops at a decent rate with Harden on the court, but when he sat they were basically the best defense in the league. Those on/off numbers are a bit skewed by a roster that’s loaded with above-average defenders, but Harden can still be lackadaisical, with waning interest and low energy. His defense will never be outright incredible or even consistent, but after watching him closely over the past few weeks it’s worth wondering how high Houston’s ceiling can get if he continues to temporarily elevate his play two tiers above “gross sore spot” and levels off somewhere around “you know what...that was actually a pretty good play!”
How, then, do you attack the Rockets? In a breezy second-round series against the Utah Jazz, Quin Snyder reluctantly pulled the plug on his pass/cut/screen system and plopped Donovan Mitchell on an island with Harden, defaulting to a primitive brand of basketball that was, essentially, Utah’s best chance. Except it wasn’t.
Teams that go after Harden in isolation—as the Warriors will likely do more and more for the rest of this series—are choosing the least bad option instead of a good one. According to Synergy, Harden ranks in the 75th percentile as a defender in isolation after a switch this postseason. That speaks to the beauty of Houston’s defensive scheme—how it neutralizes ball movement, and how inefficient head-to-head maneuvering can be for even the most talented teams if they didn’t just spend 90 games perfecting it with one of the best iso scorers ever (Harden!) serving as a bearded vanguard—but also an effort and focus by Harden that he isn’t known for.
Harden stepped up in Game 4 whenever the Warriors went out of their way to attack him. He competed in a way anyone who watched him play basketball three years ago would not recognize. Houston’s coaching staff doesn’t toss confetti in the air whenever he gets isolated against Kevin Durant or Steph Curry, but they don’t weep, either. That’s significant.
With Harden guarding Quinn Cook on the play below, P.J. Tucker instantly recognizes the matchup Golden State desires and quickly switches, forcing Draymond Green to set a second screen to get Harden on Durant. At certain points during this series, most notably in Game 3, this was a feast for the Warriors. In Game 4, Harden fought back.
It’s never any one player’s responsibility to get stops against a superstar, and Harden is supported by intelligent teammates who help off Golden State’s surprisingly long list of non-threatening outside shooters (Andre Iguodala, Green, Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney, and Jordan Bell). But he’s also finally doing little things that matter, like shading the ball towards help—as can be seen below when Eric Gordon makes the wise decision to ignore Looney—shuffling his feet, and contesting shots.
But with every positive play comes another to trivialize it. Here’s Harden letting Curry get to his right hand, away from help and towards Durant in the corner. Trevor Ariza isn’t thrilled about it.
As someone who lives to gamble, his play off the ball can be an adventure, too. Early on in Game 4, Harden lost track of Klay Thompson twice in under two minutes. In the play below, Harden stops pursuing one of the game’s greatest shooters for no reason at all. Gordon doesn’t need help against Draymond Green in the post, and nobody set a screen signaling him to switch. (Watch as Harden raises his hand to acknowledge the mistake seconds after Thompson’s shot drops through the net.)
And then here, Harden keeps his eye on the ball and somehow loses track of Thompson as he fades into the strong-side corner. At the last second he shouts at Gordon—who’s getting screened by Looney, to switch. That’s illogical.
These are inexcusable lapses that inspired me to jot some variation of “how badly does Harden want this?” down multiple times in my notebook. They bar him from entering an all-time elite tier of basketball player that his offensive genius already allows, and that will always be at least a little frustrating. It all extends to his play on the ball, too: Harden will lean back on his heels, up in his stance (a word that deserves massive air quotes), with his palms hovering over his knee caps. It’s unattractive, detectable laziness wherein Harden assumes the unrestrained confusion of a puppy that’s 100 percent positive you just threw a tennis ball over its head when it’s actually still in your hand.
But as someone who’s mostly glued to the opposing team’s feeblest option, Harden also finds himself in important help situations when his man doesn’t set a ball screen, whether it calls for him to clog up a driving lane or deter a pass. According to NBA.com, he leads all players in deflections and is averaging 0.5 more per game now than in last year’s postseason, despite logging 1.4 fewer minutes.
That’s not new. As has already been mentioned: Harden loves to gamble. His steal rate has always been impressive, and his quick hands create easy baskets (by way of humiliation) on the other end. In the first half of Game 4, he stole a pass from Nick Young and picked Durant’s pocket on back to back possessions. He wanted the ball, and not only added four points to Houston’s score, but erased what could very well have been six for Golden State.
Harden still lunges out of position, gets back cut, and beat off the bounce, but his sturdy reputation down low (according to Synergy he’s in the 100th percentile defending post-ups after a switch in the playoffs), mixed with all the positives outlined above, has, to some extent, replaced the loopy game-plan dissenter whose hypnotizing incompetence used to single handedly validate Vine’s business model.
Still, something happened at the end of Game 4 that shocked me. Harden shook off 40-plus minutes of an intense offensive workload to close out on a critical Curry three with what can fairly be described as an unprecedented sense of urgency.
It’s not rocket science (I’ll show myself out). That entire possession is what it takes to win playoff games against all-time teams in all-time environments. Multiple efforts are necessary, and Harden made several.
Aside from a grotesque performance in Game 3, Houston’s coaches believe Harden’s defense this year is much improved from the 2017 playoffs. Sharing offensive responsibilities with Chris Paul and not having to expend all of his mental and physical energy setting teammates up, scoring, and erasing deficits created by the bench whenever he needs rest has been an obvious help. But Harden’s realization that defense matters is clear.
One play can not change a reputation, and permanent turnaround is never the upshot from a single game or series. But it’s fair to say the Rockets will win the NBA championship if Harden locks in like he did through most of Game 4 for the next couple weeks. What was once a complete liability has morphed into an intriguing variable, and it’s just one reason why Houston may be the best team in basketball.