I like to be thoroughly entertained.
Mr. Blaine's jaw-dropping sleight of hand is not that dissimilar from Mr. Harden's basketball version of three-card monte.
He's here. No, he's there.
Now you see him. Now you don't.
His response? "You've got to throw James Harden in there, too."
Here's the other thing both Harden and Blaine have in common: they are relying on you to react a certain way to a given set of stimuli.
That's how to best defend James Harden's incredibly tricky Eurostep: changing the way you react.
Harden's Eurostep, whether it's just a direction change, or whether he combines it with the Dwyane Wade technique of extending the ball up and over the defender's head, depends on the defender vying for superiority.
Just like Blaine depends on you thinking you're going to figure out his card trick, Harden depends on you thinking you're going to get a steal or a block. And when he holds that ball out near you, it can look like Christmas Day—until he yanks it to your other side and turns into the Grinch.
Getting off one brilliant Eurostep a game is a feat. Harden often does it multiple times per quarter.
So if you happen to go one-on-one with Harden, first things first when you defend:
Admit Harden's offense is better than your defense.
How does that help? Once he lifts that ball up, if you think you're going to pad your ego with a swipe, he's got you right where he wants you. You'll commit to his first planted step and he's off to the races.
Being a safe driver follows the same method of thinking. If you assume everyone on the road has the power to kill you, you'll react better to maneuvers that would otherwise surprise you.
OK. Now that you admitted the Beard is is the smartest guy in the stadium, you've taken away some of his magic.
One on one
Your goal should be keeping Harden in front of you. If he burns you with a stepback jumper—and he likely will—you've still won.
You're defending the bucket, not the ball. Your job is to make his path toward the rim as difficult as possible. Forget the ball. Keep yourself between the Beard and the basket.
Keep your focus on Harden's torso. While every other part of his body is razzling and dazzling, you'll see much less movement from hips to chest.
One of the unique quirks I've seemed to sense in watching Harden is if he's not in the lane, he often uses the Eurostep to take the play back into the paint. In other words, if going to his right is going to take him toward the baseline, that'll more often be his first step—the plant step. You absolutely can't depend on that, but it might help a bit in anticipating what's going to happen.
Lastly, keep your feet lively. Forget about establishing position; with the extra steps the Eurostep affords Harden, it's just not gonna happen. Harden has spectacular footwork, so do your best to match him, shifting your weight back and forth in anticipation of the inevitable okey-doke.
Jrue Holiday does an excellent job here of being aware Harden is going to cut back. As a result, he keeps the Beard in front of him the entire play.
Also notice Holiday doesn't want anything but to stay between Harden and the basket. He doesn't go for the ball for even a split second.
Harden gets his two anyway, but that's a win for Holiday.
Again, remember that when guarding Harden, humility is the best policy.
I apologize for the poor video quality, but watch this defender slow up, thinking his superior position will force Harden to alter his path. Instead, he ends up looking a fool.
Trying to make Harden change his route is playing right into his shell game. Stay between him and the rim, even if it means giving him a five-foot shot. An obstructed five-footer is still a lower-percentage shot than an unobstructed finish at the rim.
Harden is humble about his speed, but he is surprisingly quick, capable of huge strides and of changing gears faster than a commercial-grade blender. Be ready, because he'll leave you in the dust if you lose focus even for a split-second.
Finally, if James uses the move to get through heavy traffic, don't go for the charge or the block. You'll end up saying "Sacré bleu!" like Robert Sacre here.
In that situation, I believe in old-school defense. Simply put, that means foul the guy—the kind of foul he'll feel.
At worst, you stop his flow. At best, you get in his head.
Off a pick
If you're the guy getting picked, good luck. Or as my late father would say: "Sorry son, I can't help you."
If you're the guy sliding over as a help defender, just don't slide too quickly. It's tempting to want to block the path and take a charge. Don't buy into the temptation. Remember: Harden's offense is better than your defense.
Take an angle that brings you closer to the basket than Harden. You instantly turn the play into the one-on-one situation above, instead of becoming his next victim. Also, be willing to give ground in exchange for keeping Harden in front of you.
Metta World Peace is toast here once he's picked. Dwight Howard takes the right initial route, but he gets cocky and thinks he'll be setting the agenda. You can see by his foot movement he loses his confidence very quickly when Harden makes his move.
If Howard had backed up toward the basket before planting his feet, he might have been able to contest that shot close to the rim; with his substantial height advantage, he might even have succeeded.
He certainly stood a better chance than he does here, where Harden essentially turns him into a Maypole.
A final note
Once the NBA legislated against hand-checking before the 2004-2005 season (which I believe they did to stop lockdown defenses like the Detroit Pistons played from catching on league-wide), the Eurostep became ridiculously difficult to defend.
When a virtuoso like Harden executes it, fuhgeddaboudit.
Your ultimate goal as a defender should be to make him work for his points, not to shut him down. A tired Harden is a less effective Harden. Taking into account the motor this guy plays with every second of every game, smart defense will tucker him out more.
When he beats you, as he inevitably will, don't get down on yourself. Get right back in position and remember the points we talked about.
Before you do, be sure to take a moment or two to appreciate a master showman's prestige illusion. Because that's what Harden's Eurostep is.