OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma City swingman Andre Roberson often was praised by his coach and teammates for playing suffocating defense on James Harden during their first-round playoff series.
Houston’s MVP candidate still averaged 33.2 points against the Thunder in the five-game series.
Harden’s versatility is a nightmare for top perimeter defenders in the league. Crowd him, and he goes by them. Play off him to cut off driving lanes, and he’ll often raise up and shoot a 3-pointer.
Then there is Harden’s knack for drawing contact and getting to the free throw line – he averaged 15 foul shots per game against the Thunder.
“I think that’s one of the hardest things, and I think he’s tough to guard, but … I’m going to just hold back,” Roberson said of guarding Harden without fouling him.
So that’s how teams try to defend Harden – carefully.
The Spurs kept Harden off the line Wednesday night in Game 2 of their second-round series with the Rockets, limiting him to six attempts. Harden struggled from the floor, shooting just 3-for-17, yet he had 10 assists and seven rebounds.
When one aspect of his offensive game goes south, he always has another option. He’s 6-foot-5 with strength and quickness to create mismatches. He was third in the league in made 3-pointers during the regular season. He shot and made more free throws than anyone else in the league this season, and he hit 85 percent.
Harden also led the league in assists.
“He might be the hardest player to guard in the entire league,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “If not the hardest, he’s in the top few because of the problems he presents you as a point guard. A guy with that kind of size, ability to shoot threes, gets to the rim and he’s a brilliant passer.”
Warriors guard Klay Thompson said he expects Harden to put up big numbers when he plays against him.
“There’s not many weaknesses,” Thompson said. “You don’t want to get him going because it’s easy to get a rhythm when you’re a scorer and you get to the free-throw line. You’ve just got to stay disciplined and keep your arms back and just make him beat you over the top and live with it.”
That’s the typical scene watching a Rockets game: defenders who prefer to be aggressive with their hands up in the air, seemingly waiting to react to Harden’s next move. And when he is able to put defenders on their heels and dictate what comes next, there’s a long night ahead.
Houston guard Patrick Beverley said Harden’s ability to draw fouls is a skill that has been developed over time. He said Harden’s awareness on the court is underrated, and getting free-throw opportunities is a part of it.
“You know how a player is playing you,” he said. “It’s different with each team. He does a great job of getting to the line. That all comes from IQ and feel for the game. He has a great feel for the game.”
Harden is a four-time All-Star, but this season his mastery of Mike D’Antoni’s free-flowing offensive system has elevated his offensive game even more. It’s the same system that helped Steve Nash win two MVP awards with the Phoenix Suns.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Harden’s confidence is at an all-time high.
“He’s always been a heck of a player, as we know from all the way back in OKC days,” Popovich said, “But that confidence has really propelled him and I think he’s added to his game the understanding that he can make a whole lot of people better. So, he’s scoring and doing that at the same time. That’s hard for a lot of players to do.”
Many teams try to take away at least one aspect of Harden’s game when guarding him. Opponents have tried to double-team him, but the Rockets have surrounded him with shooters. In Game 1 against San Antonio, Houston made 22 3-pointers in a 126-99 win.
Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, the two-time reigning defensive player of the year, has his hands full.
“My basic approach is to try not to make anything easy for him,” Leonard said. “Try to guard him, not foul him and especially obstruct him as best I can.”
Harden’s 20 points in Game 1 against the Spurs were well below his average, but he still had 14 assists.
“Make him take tough shots,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “If he starts making protected step-backs or stuff like that, you can’t do much about it. You just can’t give him everything. Three-point, paint, fouls – that’s when he’s at his best. Or when he backs up and he starts passing and skipping the ball to the corner and getting everybody else shooting 3s is when their game flourishes.”
Harden had the edge in Game 1. The Spurs managed to contain him in Game 2. Games 3, 4, 5 – and maybe even 6 and 7 – in this chess match should be entertaining.
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland, California and freelancer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.
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