On James Harden, and the Manipulation of the Slightest Window
James Harden was never in need of a coming-out party nor some symbolic moment in the spotlight. He's simply been far too good for far too long to warrant such formalities, and the truth of his stardom stands firm regardless of how many watched him brutalize the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night.
Harden has understandably become a more immediately pertinent topic of conversation since his dominant outburst, but he's no better a player nor pick-and-roll threat than he was just a few days prior. Harden is simply that damn good, and although the Mavericks looked particularly hopeless in their efforts to stop him, there's honestly only so much one can do when such a capable driver is given a solid screen and room -- both literally and metaphorically -- to operate.
Much of Harden's success is credited to his particularly slippery style; the aesthetic and accent of his game serve as a constant call back to the elusive Manu Ginobili. Harden has the long gait and the sudden trigger to catch most any opponent off guard, and has both the athleticism and the creativity necessary to throw opponents off of his shot's scent.
Yet when given a pick to work off of (particularly one set by Nick Collison, with whom Harden shares a fun chemistry), the exercise of checking Harden becomes borderline unfair. A defender's only chance of stopping Harden outright is to get an early peg on his unusual rhythm; there's no metronomic certainty, but there are still lilts to be measured as Harden swings his way from dribble to dribble, shuffling briskly on his path to the rim. If Harden is set to create from the perimeter on his own, there's ample time to pin down that cadence and at least make an attempt to wall off his path or peg his eventual shot attempt. Yet the screen -- while also bumping Harden's defender off of his immediate path -- also provides a timing reset; in the scramble to recover defensive positioning, Harden's man is forced to surrender their count, and overextend as a means of preventing the easiest basket possible.
This is where Harden thrives. If his defender's flailing winds up drawing another defender's help-side attentions, Harden is quick to make the right pass. If his solo defender has overcompensated and slid too far out of position, Harden changes directions suddenly, often initiating contact in the process. If his defender seems to have recovered in time, Harden typically proves otherwise by stepping through and around the supposedly solid coverage for an easy lay-in or powerful jam.
For a player this gifted and this unique, that post-screen window is all that's necessary. It takes Harden off the grid for but the slightest moment, and in those precious seconds, he abuses his opponent's inattention as well as any ball-handler in the league. Harden somehow explodes off the dribble without his defender realizing their sudden vulnerability, and by the time Harden is sliding down the lane with arms and ball extended, it's far too late.
Whether the basket, drawn foul, or well-placed pass comes next is immaterial; by manipulating his defender's perceptions of timing and defensive space, Harden has put the opposing team in an impossible bind.
Out of the corner of one eye: the potential for Russell Westbrook's concentrated explosion. Out of the corner of the other: Kevin Durant's lethal accuracy. And slinking around the defense's interior is Harden, a constantly shifting threat capable of bringing consistency through his own antithetical rote. There is no right play in that situation and no sound coverage; there is merely a range of acceptable concession, and an acknowledgement that attempting to defend such artfully implemented talent always comes with a price.
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