• James Harden was the best offensive player on the floor in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant needed three more shots to score four fewer points than his former teammate’s 41 on 14-of-24 from the field, and doled out one assist compared to Harden’s seven. The game certainly looked easier for Durant, eating on a steady diet of turnarounds and fadeaways from the mid-post over helpless defenders, but the numbers suggest Harden was more effective with the ball in his hands, and rightfully so.

    Still, what separated the reigning Finals MVP from the presumptive regular-season MVP on Monday night is what transpired on the other side of the ball. Durant, as is his want this time of year, took on the responsibility of being Harden’s primary defender. The Houston Rockets superstar shot 7-of-11 on the 39 possessions he was guarded by Durant, according to Second Spectrum, scoring 18 points and dishing four assists. Just like Durant abused the Rockets, Harden abused Durant.

    But there’s only so much an individual defender can do against the game’s best offensive players, especially in this series, where the floor is spaced with shooters in the halfcourt and wide open in transition. Durant, save for two backdoor layups in the second half, made Harden work for his points, forcing him to pound the ball late into the clock before stepping back for three or creasing the paint, and so did the rest of the Warriors.

    A possession like this takes a toll all by itself, but even more so when the player in question is counted on to create something from nothing again and again and again.

    Note who’s checking Harden there, by the way. The Rockets targeted Steph Curry throughout Game 1, even trying their damndest to get him switched onto the ball for the first six possessions of the second half. The Warriors employed a similar gambit with Harden. Unlike Curry, though, Harden offered little resistance as a primary defender – after schemed pick-and-rolls coaxed him into guarding Golden State’s most dangerous players, and in the general flow of the action.

    The Warriors scored 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting and 3-of-7 from beyond the arc when Harden was defending the ball. Just nine of those attempts were contested, per Second Spectrum, and Golden State connected on five of them. The box score says Durant was bothered by Harden a bit; he scored 11 points and went 4-of-9 from the field on the 20 possessions those two were matched up. The film tells a different story. Harden swiped lazily at Durant’s dribble on three of the plays the latter eventually took a shot, allowing him a clear path to the paint before Clint Capela forced him into a miss.

    Most of the shots Durant took over Harden looked like this, whether they went in or not.

    Nobody in the world can properly defend Durant in a situation like that; the best any defender can do is get an early contest and hope he misfires. But Harden routinely failed to do his work prior the ball getting there, letting Durant find a rhythm before rising for an unblockable jumper. Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker, by contrast, tried their hardest to push Durant off his spots and rattle his dribble.

    Curry beat Harden with even greater ease than his superstar teammate. It’s no secret that Harden struggles most defensively in open space. Still, there’s no excuse for a player like Nené, 35 years old and some 250 pounds, to make life harder for the Warriors stars on perimeter switches than Harden.

    Fatigue obviously played a factor in Harden’s defensive malaise. The onerous scoring and playmaking weight he carries for Houston clearly affected him on offense at times, too. But the plays below came in the first quarter, when adrenaline was flowing, Toyota Center was rocking and the Rockets failed to take advantage of an early lead provided by Harden scoring nine points before the 10-minute mark.

    Houston has been waiting for the chance to dethrone Golden State ever since bringing Paul in last June.

    “We’ve been preparing for this the entire season,” Harden said before Game 1. “…This is the perfect opportunity that we’ve been preachin’ about all year.”

    You wouldn’t have known it watching Harden play defense on Monday night. Even when Durant wasn’t rising unencumbered over the top of him and Curry wasn’t blowing right by him, Harden was a major minus defensively for the Rockets. Curry is limited on that end of the floor, too. He not only puts up a much better fight than Harden when switched onto the ball, though, but is also far more engaged when defending away from it.

    Houston attacked Curry with ball screens; Golden State went at Harden every which way, all over the floor, at all points of the game. He got caught ball-watching twice early in the third quarter, including on its opening possession, leading to dead layups by Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson.

    Harden was no better in transition. The Rockets must be vigilant matching up when the Warriors are pushing the ball in the open floor. They all need to be more engaged in that respect going forward, but Harden was easily his team’s biggest culprit. He failed to communicate with teammates in transition on multiple occasions, twice leading to back-breaking triples that stymied Houston’s late-game comeback bid.

    Harden’s laissez-faire attitude toward defense worked in the regular season. The Rockets’ switch-everything scheme plays directly into his strengths and weaknesses, simplifying the game for a player whose defensive instincts are nearly as problematic as his offensive ones are beneficial. But this is May, and these are the Warriors. Anything less than ceaseless engagement from Harden isn’t good enough, and even that increased level of commitment will often prove inconsequential. Great offense always beats good defense.

    After last year’s Finals, Kerr made headlines nationwide by telling ESPN’s Zach Lowe that Durant, not Curry, was the second-best player in the world behind LeBron James. His justification was simple: Durant, at nearly seven-feet tall with arms that hang at his knees and the foot speed of a player six inches shorter, can be relied upon to positively impact the game on its brightest stage both offensively and defensively.

    Curry can’t, and neither can Harden. But through years of experience and experimentation, the scope of Curry’s negative influence defensively continues to narrow. Harden, meanwhile, offered so little in the way of resistance Monday night to recall the super-cuts of ineptitude that first tarnished his defensive reputation in 2015, one that’s slowly and surely improved ever since. Don’t tell that to the Warriors. They worked Harden over early and often in Game 1, confident his worst habits on one end would be manifested while shouldering such a burdensome load on the other.

    It worked. Whether or not the same approach does in Game 2 won’t just help decide this series, but also where Harden really ranks in basketball’s individual hierarchy.

Fantasy News

  • Bogdan Bogdanovic
    SG, Sacramento Kings

    Bogdan Bogdanovic scored a team-high 28 points in Serbia's 85-80 win over Greece on Sunday.

    Serbia will be a tough team to beat in the 2019 FIBA World Cup thanks to Bogdanovic, Nikola Jokic and Nemanja Bjelica among others. Bjelica put up 18 points and 14 rebounds as well. They were able to beat Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had 20 points. This is one of the teams that could sneak up on Team USA and pull out a win.

    Source: Eurohoops

  • Justin Anderson
    SG, Atlanta Hawks

    According to The Athletic, the Wizards and Justin Anderson are trying to work towards a training camp contract.

    Anderson averaged a career-low 9.6 minutes per game with the Hawks last season. The former first-round pick is looking to gain another opportunity on a thin Wizards team. He will likely not have much fantasy value if he manages to make the roster.

    Source: Fred Katz on Twitter

  • Victor Oladipo
    SG, Indiana Pacers

    Victor Oladipo is still rehabbing from his ruptured quad tendon in January, and is unsure if he will be an active participant at the Pacers' training camp when it opens in September.

    Our last update from Pacers POBO Kevin Pritchard had Oladipo aiming for December or January, and that timetable still seems doable. He is taking his leadership role seriously, connecting with the Pacers' new players this summer, and it seems likely that he will make his presence felt this year at some point. Oladipo had an outstanding campaign two years ago, but even before the injury he was a disappointment last season. Fantasy owners should proceed with caution, we may not see Oladipo's top form this year.

    Source: Indiana Pacers

  • Bol Bol
    C, Denver Nuggets

    Bol Bol stated that he has completely recovered from the left foot fracture that ended his college basketball career, and he is now working out twice a day for his upcoming rookie season with the Nuggets.

    The multi-talented center could put up big numbers if given the opportunity with the Nuggets, but the risk for another injury is real. With that in mind, Bol is not expected to receive a lot of minutes this season. If that somehow changes, it would be exciting to see his rare combination of blocks and 3-pointers in action.

    Source: Jim Slater of AFP

  • Dwight Howard
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    The Grizzlies are allowing the Lakers to speak with Dwight Howard.

    The news came out yesterday that the Lakers would seek permission and the fact that they were granted it suggests that Howard will not be on the Grizzlies for long. The aftermath of DeMarcus Cousins tearing his ACL left them in need of another center if they want to remain true to playing Anthony Davis exclusively at power forward. Joakim Noah is the other option on the Lakers' radar and has been a facilitator and role player in the past.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Moritz Wagner
    PF, Washington Wizards

    Moritz Wagner has been cut from Germany’s FIBA World Cup team.

    The move seems somewhat surprising given Wagner’s youth and notoriety, but Germany still has four NBA players on their roster despite cutting Wagner. The Wizards have plenty of depth in the frontcourt and Wagner is probably lower on the totem poll when it comes to receiving minutes.

    Source: Dario Skerletic of Sportando

  • Jonah Bolden
    PF, Philadelphia Sixers

    Jonah Bolden has opted to withdraw from Team Australia in the FIBA World Cup.

    Bolden becomes the fifth NBA player to skip out on playing for Australia in the World Cup, a trend that seems to be prevalent for several countries' national teams. Bodlen could be looking at an increased role as a backup center for Philly's thin bench this upcoming season. He is not expected to be a relevant fantasy option though.

    Source: Fox Sports Australia

  • Jeremy Lin
    PG, Toronto Raptors

    Jeremy Lin is in advanced discussions with the Bejing Ducks according to a report from Chinese journalist Sonx Xiang.

    Lin previosuly turned down a deal to play for CSKA Moscow, and has also discussed his openness to playing in China. The nine year guard still hopes to resmue his NBA career at some point, but a move to China may be the best career option for him at this juncture.

    Source: Sportando

  • Dwight Howard
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    The Lakers will soon ask Memphis permission to speak with Dwight Howard according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

    Shams goes on to mention that there is mutual interest here and that Joakim Noah could be another veteran of interest for LA. The realistic options for free agents at the five really don't go much further than these two for the Lakers. Stay tuned for more updates on this developing story.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Dwight Howard
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    In the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins injury, one name the Lakers are considering is Dwight Howard, according to Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated.

    Howard is still a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, but it is widely assumed that he will be waived before the season starts. A reunion in LA would certainly be pretty surprising for the Lakers after Howard famously did not resign with them after a miserable season playing with Kobe Bryant. Still, the Lakers need depth at the five and there really aren't any options on the market who compare to Howard's level of productivty, even at this stage of his career. Other center options the Lakers could pursue include Joakim Noah, Kenneth Faried and Zaza Pachulia.

    Source: Rohan Nadkarni on Twitter