May 15, 2018, 6:01 pm
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.