LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As he stood on the sideline, Houston Rockets guard James Harden stared out to the nearly empty crowd. He then screamed loudly.
Harden had just blocked the ball that Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort heaved from 3-point range, a play that bore layers of significance. The play salvaged the Rockets’ season as they escaped with a 104-102 win over the Thunder on Wednesday in a decisive Game 7 of their first-round series. The play set up Houston with a second-round matchup against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers beginning Friday. And the play bolstered Harden’s reputation as it seemed it take a nosedive.
Harden had scored 17 points while shooting inefficiently. So after he blocked Dort’s shot from deep, Harden said he yelled “out of frustration.” He also quoted the late hip-hop artist Nipsey Hussle, “never let a hard time humble us.” After all, Harden ranked that play “one of the top” moments in an 11-year NBA career filled with epic offensive performances.
“It’s cool to get 40 or 50 points or to be shooting the ball extremely well. Obviously, we all want to do that,” Harden said. “But just to get recognition and for it to pay off when it counts on the defensive end, it shows I can engage and lock in. To show that in a clutch moment means a lot.”
To think, it appeared this moment would be about Harden’s offensive struggles throughout a decisive Game 7. He kept clanking shots. He looked winded. And he was on the verge of repeating a well-worn storyline.
After scoring prolifically during the regular season, Harden has either fizzled or tired out during postseason runs. After Harden averaged 28.5 points on 41.3% shooting in the 2017 NBA playoffs, the Rockets acquired Chris Paul in a sign-and-trade partly to relieve his burden. But Harden then averaged 28 points on 41 percent shooting in the 2018 NBA postseason, while Paul missed the final two games of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State because of a strained right hamstring. With Paul limited again in the 2019 postseason, Harden averaged 31.6 points on a 41.3 percent clip.
James Harden reacts after his late-game block against the Thunder. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
So, the Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook from Oklahoma City for Paul because the pair’s style of play and personalities meshed better. As Westbrook scored 20 points on 9-of-20 shooting amid improvement following his quad injury, Harden still labored offensively. Yet, the Rockets soon became impressed with Harden’s determination not to allow his shooting numbers to define his sole value.
“It’s not about how good you play. It’s about how hard you play and how engaged you are,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It’s more brains and heart and not talent.”
So, Harden did not rely on his talent to make shots from 3-point range, drive to the basket with ease or draw whistles on almost every shot attempt. Harden relied on working hard on a skill that the Rockets say has improved in recent years.
“James’ defense has gotten a lot better. A lot better, obviously,” D’Antoni said. “He’s been locked in. I think he knows for us to be able to win at a good clip the defense has to be there. He’s just taking the challenge and doing a great job.”
Harden has not always been known for doing a great job on defense. He cemented a reputation as a player who took plays off on that end and simply shrugged his shoulders when his opponent scored. He simply knew he could respond just as quickly with his own basket.
After playing with Harden in Oklahoma City (2009-2012) and this past season in Houston, however, Westbrook shook his head and dismissed that narrative as quickly as one of his fast breaks.
“James has been playing defense,” Westbrook said. “I think if you [the media] actually looked at the numbers, since you guys like to look at numbers, look at them and you will get your answers.”
The numbers say this: Harden ranked fifth in the NBA this season in steals per game (1.8). He had the team’s second-best defensive rating (118.2). And opposing players have shot a combined 32% against him.
“James defends. I think this notion where obviously in the past he loses his man and does different things, but he’s improved not just this year. But I’ve seen it improve on that side of things,” Westbrook said. “He gets overlooked because he’s such an exceptional offensive player. You guys only see one thing and think, 'oh, he can’t play defense.' That’s not true.”
What is true is that Harden changed his attitude about defense because of a specific reason.
“The frustration of not winning and whatever he needs to do, he wants to do to get us further in the playoffs,” D’Antoni said. “He made a commitment. He’s been terrific. This year he has been really good. It just keeps getting better. His instincts are great on defense, always have been. Now he’s locked in.”
Surely, the Rockets will need Harden to shoot much better against the Lakers than he did in Game 7. Same can be said with Westbrook continuously shedding his rust after playing only three playoff games since missing the previous five because of an injured right quad. The Lakers simply have too much star power in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But the Rockets’ fortunes also depend on Harden having a gritty attitude through both shooting slumps and scoring streaks.
“In order for us to get to where we want to go, I have to be close to elite on the defensive end,” Harden said. “Credit to the coaches and teammates. We have defensive schemes. We have things where we communicate. It helps me and all of us."
"This is the NBA, so anybody on an island by themselves is difficult to guard. There are so many talented guards and bigs in this league that are hard to guard one-on-one. So the communication from my teammates [helps]. But it’s just taking on the individual challenge. Whoever is in front of me, it’s about knowing who is in front of me, knowing their tendencies and knowing what they do. And taking on the challenge to guard them.”
Harden took on that challenge to guard Dort, who had scored 30 points while shooting 10-of-21 from the field and 6-of-12 from 3-point range. By doing that, Harden saved both the season and his reputation. That gave him a reason to boast and roar.
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