For the majority of his tenure in Houston, James Harden has been the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in basketball. The combination of crafty handles to lull the opposing defender to sleep, nifty and poetic finishing moves around the basket, and incredible passing accuracy in the half-court makes him one of the league's most un-guardable playmakers.
Thursday night in Oakland, Harden epitomized this description and tried to will his team to a Game 2 victory. Even though James Harden could not capitalize on a last-second possession, he deserves nothing but praise and admiration for carrying his team and putting them in position, two games in a row, to win and steal a game at the Oracle.
James Harden was playing checkers, not chess, with the Warriors defense.
He moved up the board slowly, probing the opponent and analyzing different movements and tendencies. Smart and calculated, James Harden was opportunistic with his drives and play-making. His patience and basketball IQ combined with his athleticism, speed, and versatility earned him a historic performance.
In an effort to truly understand and appreciate Harden's 38 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists line, I decided to go back and look at the film. Three points will be discussed: patience and play making, scoring, and the final possession.
James Harden and the "Read-Option"
The Rockets' offense is built around James Harden having the ball in his hands. It comes as no surprise. It's so successful because Harden is an elite passer and decision maker. To get this point across, I'm going to compare Harden's decision making to the read-option in American football.
In football, the read-option allows the QB to "read" the movements of a particular defensive player and decide whether to keep the snap or hand it off to the running back. This offensive tactic translates to the Rockets offensive scheme, because James Harden (QB) has essentially the same freedom. The Rockets spread the floor with 2-3 shooters, two in the corners and one on a wing, and two pick-and-roll participants. Spacing created allows for the primary ball-handler, in this case James Harden, to choose and create for the offense.
Back to the football analogy. Let's imagine the tailback is a better runner than the quarterback. The defense will line up in a probable 4-3 stance, with the middle LB crashing the inside gap and the defensive end getting into the cutback lane. The free safety, who's inside the box, will take on the quarterback if he decides to keep it. To counter this tactical adjustment, the offense will likely have the running back attack inside, then quickly cut it back once the free safety and defensive lineman freeze on containment; allowing the offense to gain a first down.
How does the read-option translate into a basketball offense? Well it's represented by the Rockets bread-and-butter, the pick-and-roll.
Think of it as a domino effect. Harden's decision to pass leads to another decision, which leads to another decision... The goal is to end up with a high percentage opportunity while playing to the team's strength, attacking down hill.
To best explain Harden's brilliance and high basketball IQ, I picked out a certain offensive possession in the 4th quarter of Game 2. I'll go through the play step-by-step, illustrating how elite of a facilitator he is.
James Harden brings up the ball late in the fourth quarter. In the previous possession Josh Smith chucked a three pointer, allowing Golden State the opportunity on the fast break. James Harden decides he needs the ball in hands (as he always should).
All 5 players on offense are in position: two shooters in the corners, one big along the baseline.
James calls Dwight to set a screen. Dwight asks him to go right and he does. This is the Rockets' dangerous high screen and roll, where Harden can maneuver his way into the paint and score. Not so fast though. Bogut does not come high to double, instead he stays back and is in position to mitigate the Harden drive and/or Dwight roll.
James Harden wants to go left with his strong-hand, however Bogut is in perfect position to deny the middle of the floor. Because of the great defense, Dwight takes Bogut back inside the paint. Harden now calls on Terrence Jones to set the screen.
Klay Thompson goes over the screen, knowing that Draymond Green is in position to eradicate the threat of a Harden drive to the rim.
Draymond Green forces Harden to go left, probably leading him towards Bogut, but it would have been smarter to lead him right towards Harrison Barnes (trapped along sideline). Instead, the Beard gets the ball in his left hand and gets into the middle of the floor.
With Harden breaking through the Warriors' pick-and-roll defense, he has free reign to decide how the domino should fall. In this certain play with both shooters relatively well defended, James decides to attack Bogut, forcing the Warriors' center to step-up, leaving Howard open for a wrap-around pass. Dwight cannot finish, but brilliant recognition by Harden to get his teammate a high percentage opportunity around the basket.
Their simple high pick-and-roll worked relatively well, particularly since the Warriors were confused at times with their help-side defense assignments. For instance in the play above, with Bogut stepping up, Curry must decide whether or not he's going to take away the three point shooter or help defend a pass to Dwight. He gets caught in no-mans land, allowing Dwight an open attempt. Also in this play both Thompson and Green come to double Harden, thus leaving Jones with an open cut to the rim. If Bogut had not stepped up, Harden would have made a precise bounce pass to Jones for an easy layup.
In the play above, and throughout the season, Harden has done a perfect job of freezing the defender when making his move, and making the right decision, always with all five defenders keyed on him.
The entire offense is built on Harden's isolation ability and prowess. If you overload his side or come to double, other shooters are in position to whip the ball around and find the open man for three. If you help on one side, he can split the defense and use his excellent vision and patience to create opportunities for shooters/cutters.
Many fans believe the Rockets need to run more movement or basketball plays on offense in late game situations, but in actuality they already are. As in the read-option offense in football, there are many variations to freeze the defense and gain yards. Teams running the "read" can have a fullback or tight end come around the offensive line and scrape the outside linebacker, creating a cutback lane or crease for the tailback to run through. The same applies for the Rockets offense.
They take what the defense gives them, but still play to their strengths. If the left side is taken away for Harden and he's forced towards Bogut, then the Rockets can run a sideline pin-down or dribble hand-off for Corey Brewer or Trevor Ariza which has been effective in getting the ball inside the paint and creating penetration. There's always an adjustment, a tactical change, a strategic move that the Rockets can make, and with the brilliance that Harden is currently displaying, I'd keep riding the Beard all series long.
Here's one last example of Harden as a facilitator. The Rockets run their High HORNS set with Terrence Jones and Clint Capela as the opposite bigs setting the ball screens. Harden uses Jones' screen, forcing Draymond Green to switch onto Harden and Andre Iguodala onto Jones. James makes an excellent pocket pass to Terrence Jones and hes able to finish strong over Bogut (also notice how he had Capela open for an alley oop with no weak-side help from Warriors).
Houston uses the Warriors' game plan to their advantage. Understanding that the Warriors will switch Green onto Harden off every ball screen, James takes away Green from inside the paint and allows a mobile Terrence Jones to force Bogut into a tough decision.
Bearding at its finest
James Harden scored an impressive 38 points on 13-21 shooting and 9-10 from the FT line. He shot 7/8 on uncontested jumpers, most of which came inside arc. A magnificent offensive performance that should not go unrecognized.
I define James Harden as a professional scorer; a versatile and efficient weapon of mass offensive production. Throughout the season and into the postseason, James Harden has made life difficult for opposing teams.
If you take away his left (strong) hand dribble, he'll attack you with his right hand and score. If you collapse the paint, he'll calmly hit a step-back jumper or hit a floater with his left hand. If you reach, he'll draw the foul and teach. James Harden is just a frustrating assignment for defenders, and he showed why in Game 2.
There were many plays that displayed James Harden's greatness, but I'm going to discuss one in particular that stood out.
It was late in the fourth quarter and the Rockets needed to score and answer the Warriors. Harden, initially shut down by Thompson and two other Warriors inside, brought the ball back outside towards the left wing. He surveyed the defense and decided to drive right and finish over Thompson inside the paint.
If you stop Harden on his initial drive to the basket, as the Warriors did here, he'll use his wide array of moves and assortment of dribbles to bait the defender. Once the on-ball defender relaxes or gets out of proper position, the Beard takes advantage.
In the play above, Harden motions Terry towards the weak-side area. This creates more space for Harden to operate and provides spacing for ball movement and an open three. But in this play, James has no intentions of passing the ball. He brings Klay Thompson outside and begins to shift his feet and massage the dribble. He takes a jab step to his left, shifting Thompson towards that side, then quickly brings the ball to his right hand and attacks the middle of the paint. His crossover forced Thompson to overreact, giving Harden an open lane to the middle of the floor where the options are endless (draw foul, drive, or shoot).
Once he drives right, Harden's deceptive quick and long first step creates more separation between he and Thompson. Notice how James steps into Thompson and jumps off the same left leg to attempt the difficult floater. As much as he is a professional scorer, Harden is an even better difficult shot maker. He keeps the proper balance (check out the hip movement) and gets the shot to go over Klay Thompson.
Will this be sustainable? Can James Harden truly keep this going? Probably not to the same brilliance, but he's playing at a very high level right now.
The Rockets need to keep giving him the ball and put him in position to be aggressive. Instead of getting Dwight going to start games, Houston needs to run ball screen and off-ball action early to allow James Harden to develop a nice offensive rhythm. He talks about letting the game come to him and setting up his teammates, but against a team like the Warriors you need James Harden to be aggressive and attack consistently. Only then will players who are struggling from three like Corey Brewer and Jason Terry will have open looks to shoot from the corners or drive inside. Only then will Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones get easier attempts around the basket.
Getting the Warriors to scramble and forcing them to go small plays into the Rockets advantage. The heart and effort has been there. Now is the time for team consistency and high-IQ basketball to appear.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, they could not execute in the final seconds and tie the series. People asked me on Twitter to share my thoughts regarding the "no timeout" debacle, so here's my answer.
I personally believe the Rockets made the right decision on not calling the timeout. After Dwight disrupted Barnes' layup, Harden got the rebound with the Warriors defense not set in transition. With momentum on your side, the team lived with Harden's decision.
I re-watched the final possession over and over again, it was as brutal as the Damian Lillard buzzer beater, but my only comment in retrospect would be that a timeout should have been taken once Harden passed it back to the trailer (Dwight Howard).
James Harden analyzes defenses and makes calculated, smart decisions with the basketball. In that place and time, he was rushed and was not able to fully establish a plan of attack. With Curry coming over to double and Ariza taking away the left hand dribble, options were limited and Harden was stuck in no mans land.
Despite all that, after re-watching Game 2, I truly believe that James Harden is capable of carrying Houston towards an NBA Championship. Harden has displayed qualities of Michael Jordan (shot-making, execution), Larry Bird (passing, rebounding), LeBron James (athleticism, vision) in these first two games. He's symbolized the true greatness that only special basketball players possess. So Rockets fans, will you give up hope? I certainly won't. This is a long series, and we have the best player in the world on our side.
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