• James Harden wasn’t the problem in Game 2. He had 32 points, six rebounds and 11 assists on 21 shots, and spearheaded the offensive onslaught on either side of halftime that helped the Houston Rockets come all the way back from an early 19-point deficit. It was the type of casually dominant performance we’ve come to expect from the presumptive MVP. Harden wasn’t quite good enough to beat the Utah Jazz by himself, but nevertheless put his team in a position to win on a night Houston was far from its best.

    Still, it was easy to watch the deciding stretch of Wednesday’s game and come away expecting more from Harden. He needed seven shots to score as many points in the fourth quarter, and didn’t offset that subpar efficiency with high-level playmaking, doling out just one assist. Utah outscored Houston 24-17 over the game’s final eight minutes and four seconds, turning a two-point deficit into a convincing eight-point win – and Harden, simply, didn’t do much to stop it.

    The Rockets’ defense is more culpable than anything else for their dispiriting Game 2 loss. Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza combined for an ugly 11-of-35 on uncontested attempts, per NBA.com/stats, too. But Harden has made a habit of coming to the rescue for Houston when needed most, and failed to do so in crunch time on Wednesday.

    The Jazz, obviously, deserve immense credit for keeping him in relative check. Dante Exum made several splash plays offensively, using his burst and length to get to the rim for explosive finishes and pinpoint lob passes, but was at his best on the other end of the floor, where he forced Harden into 0-of-7 shooting and two offensive fouls – his only turnovers of the game.

    Utah’s coaching staff has clearly stressed the importance of primary defenders keeping their hands high, out of Harden’s proverbial cookie jar, and no player has done it better than Exum. His first step is quick enough to press up on Harden, invading his airspace to prevent a comfortable pull-up jumper, without giving him an unimpeded path to the basket going right. Few defenders in the league have the requisite combination of physical gifts and dogged demeanor to force Harden into looks like this.

    “Dante has some size and some length,” Quin Snyder said after the game. “We’ve had confidence in Dante taking difficult matchups. No one’s congratulating each other with what happened for us defensively; I think we need to be better. Like I said, [Harden is] not a player that any one guy can guard. So the fact that Dante can come in, give us some minutes and compete and battle, is a big thing.”

    Royce O’Neale, starting for Ricky Rubio, has done yeoman’s work on Harden, too. The Jazz’s defenders are contesting long and early on Harden’s vaunted step-back 3-pointer, extending right arms up and out even before he’s fully gathered the ball. Harden can make off-dribble jumpers under heavy duress, but those shots, so key to his effectiveness this season especially, carry a much lesser expected efficiency when his space is encroached and his vision is hampered.

    The guide to successfully defending Harden, or at least hoping to do so, begins with keeping him away from his left hand. That’s far easier said than done. Harden attacks his defender’s top foot with relentless precision and patience. He almost always gets where he wants to go, no matter where the defense is trying to send him. Acknowledging that imminently helpless reality, Donovan Mitchell and other defenders unenviably switched onto the Rockets’ maestro often completely opened their hips to the sideline, sitting high on Harden’s left hand, yielding an open lane to the paint headed right.

    That approach, while limiting Harden’s ability to pull back for triples, is a death-knell for the vast majority of Rockets opponents nonetheless. No player in basketball is better at getting back to his strong hand. But no player in basketball is a better rim-protector than Rudy Gobert, either, who did a masterful job in Game 2 committing to getting vertical with Harden at the last possible moment, preventing alley-oops or dump-offs to an awaiting Clint Capela.

    Gobert contested 13 field goal attempts on Wednesday night, according to NBA.com/stats, five more than any other player, and Houston connected on just five of those tries. Just as importantly, he prevented at least half that many shots in the paint, ones Harden would normally feast on against most back-line big men – and did against Derrick Favors.

    The length and timing of Gobert allows him to hang back in isolations or pick-and-roll action, confident he’ll be able to provide resistance once he and the ball handler meet closer to the rim. Favors’ comparative lack of physical gifts doesn’t afford him that luxury, and the Rockets routinely took advantage when he was playing center with Gobert on the bench.

    The tandem of Favors and Gobert has a 133.5 defensive rating in 24 minutes over the first two games of this series, confirming a regular-season trend, just as expected. Expect Snyder to pull the plug on Favors even earlier in Game 3, bringing in Jae Crowder, who’s playing his best offensive ball of the season and offers far more positional versatility on the other end.

    Regardless of what Utah looks like up front, though, Houston needs to put Harden in better position to succeed.  Flattening the floor and letting him call for a ball screen or dance one-on-one isn’t enough against the Jazz. One of the biggest reasons Daryl Morey brought Paul in last summer was to give Harden the opportunity to work off the ball, running around screens and catching on the attack as his defender trails in rear-view pursuit and the defense is already scrambling.

    The slightest step one direction or the other can be the difference between Gobert blocking a shot or forcing a miss, and Harden finishing over the top or Capela slipping in for a dunk.

    The Jazz have the horses, on the perimeter and interior, to make life difficult on Harden, and did exactly that when it mattered most in Game 2. Whether or not they manage the same feat at home could decide the tenor this series going forward, but even that isn’t guaranteed. Great offense beats great defense, and Harden is a virtuoso at the height of his powers.

    The push and pull continues from Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Fantasy News

  • Caris LeVert
    SG, Brooklyn Nets

    The Nets and Caris LeVert have agreed to terms on a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension, as per Adrian Wojnarowski.

    This makes sense for the Nets, who have long extolled their love for LeVert's long-term outlook. This sounds like they're fully committed to making him a core player. Enjoy his upside this season, as he will likely take a usage hit when Kevin Durant returns to full health and takes the floor.

    Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter

  • Evan Fournier
    SF, Orlando Magic

    In an 82-80 win by France over Italy on Sunday, Evan Fournier posted 29 points in 19 minutes of action.

    This was nice showing for Fournier, who is coming of a relatively lackluster 2018-19 campaign. He will have to fend off an emergent Terrence Ross for those minutes at the wing this season and will need production-per-minute on this level if he wants to stay on the floor for the Magic.

    Source: Orlando Magic Daily on Twitter

  • Victor Oladipo
    SG, Indiana Pacers

    Victor Oladipo had little to say about his rehab process (ruptured quad tendon) at his basketball camp in Indiana.

    We weren't expecting earth shattering details while Oladipo was busy overseeing his basketball camp, but more information about the Pacer would be most welcome. It is hard to know what you will get from Oladipo on draft day, but you have to figure someone in your league will be interested in taking a gamble on him. He is still not scrimmaging with other players, and whenever he does return to game action this season, it is unlikely he will resume being a top player in the early going.

    Source: The Athletic

  • Briante Weber
    PG, International

    Briante Weber, after spending the end of last season with the Greek club Olympiacos, is joining the Metropolitians 92, based in Boulogne-Levallois, France.

    Weber attended free agent mini-camps in June with the Raptors and Wolves, and spent time in the G-League last year, but has never been able to catch on long-term with an NBA team. He has had brief stops with several NBA squads over the years, so it is possible he could return to a roster at some point this season. There is nothing to see here in terms of fantasy though.

    Source: BeBasket.com

  • Rui Hachimura
    PF, Washington Wizards

    Rui Hachimura showed off his scoring prowess with 31 points in Japan's comeback victory over Germany on Saturday.

    After a nice string of Summer League performances, Rui Hachimura is continuing his strong play in FIBA World Cup exhibition games for Japan. He can clearly get his own look in the mid-range, and the rookie should get a chance to perform for the Wizards this year. Keep an eye on Hachimura's preseason opportunities, as the competition for the Wizards' power forward minutes isn't fierce. He could be worth a late-round flyer in standard league-drafts.

    Source: Mike Schmitz on Twitter

  • Robert Covington
    SF, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Robert Covington (right knee) is not expected to have any limitations heading into training camp.

    Covington had arthroscopic surgery in April after missing 47 games last season due to a bone bruise on his right knee.

    Source: Chris Hine of the Star Tribune

  • Jeff Teague
    PG, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Jeff Teague (left ankle) is not expected to have any restrictions for training camp.

    Teague had a left ankle debridement procedure in April to help alleviate inflammation. Teague's ankles have given him trouble throughout his career and he only played 42 games last season. With a clean bill of health Teague will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing season.

    Source: Chris Hine of the Star Tribune

  • Derrick White
    PG, San Antonio Spurs

    Derrick White has reportedly passed the first concussion test after taking a nasty fall in Team USA's tuneup game vs. the Australian Boomers on Saturday.

    This is good news. White has worked hard for his Team USA roster spot and should provide some guard depth for them once he clears concussion protocols. He was an eye-opener last season and should still hold some fantasy value despite the return of a now-healthy Dejounte Murray.

    Source: Tom Orsborn on Twitter

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma (sore left ankle) will not take part in the FIBA World Cup as Team USA announces its final roster.

    Kuzma sat out Team USA's final tuneup against Australia on Saturday as Marc Stein reports that he is flying back to Los Angeles to get treatment. We should still expect him to be ready for training and congrats to Mason Plumlee for making the team as many speculated that he would be the final cut.

    Source: Marc Stein on Twitter

  • Kemba Walker
    PG, Boston Celtics

    Kemba Walker scored 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting with four rebounds with two assists as USA Basketball had it's 78-game winning streak in tournament and exhibition games snapped on Saturday.

    Walker continues to assert himself as the team's best player but USA losing to Australia was the much bigger story in this one. Harrison Barnes also played well as he chipped in 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with six rebounds. USA will take on Canada on Monday in their last exhibition before taking on the Czech Republic in the first official match of the tournament on September 1.

    Source: USAB.com