With apologies to Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein: How you solve a problem like James Harden?
In The Sound of Music, the composers compare Maria Von Trapp to holding a moonbeam in your hand. That lyrical phrase also aptly describes the Houston Rockets shooting guard's Eurostep: right when you think you've got him, he disappears.
That's when Harden's not hitting from outside or drawing fouls at a rate comparable to that of a Bugatti on the Autobahn.
So how do you solve a problem like James Harden?
Based on the Rockets' first playoff game of 2013, we really ought to ask the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In the Rockets' one win against the Thunder this season, Harden's isolation plays netted him 19 points on 5-of-7 shooting, good for a 2.11 points per play average. Conversely, in their three losses including the first playoff matchup, Harden in isolation averaged just 4.7 points per game on 4-of-20 shooting, an anemic .54 points per play.
Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder defensive stopper, hounded Harden on most possessions—cautious about Harden's ball fakes, focusing on maintaining his feet and position. The Thunder switched ably too, dousing out Harden's effective pick-and-roll.
Packing the paint
Serge Ibaka was a first-team All-NBA defender last season, and he's likely to be among the top vote-getters again this year. In the first playoff game, Ibaka showed why, protecting the paint and stopping Harden from his tried-and-true attack. He swatted a Harden shot early in the first quarter, making a statement that he and the Thunder were ready for Harden down low.
Heck, even Kevin Durant got in on the action, stymying Harden on a transition drive by drawing an offensive charge.
There's a nice piece from Grantland on the popular in-league phrase "to 2.9," which means staying in the paint as long as possible without violating the three-second rule. To paraphrase the author on NBA defenses' trend of paint-packing: if, by flooding the lane, you neutralize an offense's first option, you force them into their second option. And that second option had damned well better work.
In the first playoff game, Houston's second option—the long ball—most certainly did not.
Speaking of which...
Defend the three-ball
Because Omer Asik and the power-forward-du-jour aren't offensive threats, the Thunder are able to defend the perimeter.
The Rockets as a team only made eight of 36 three-point attempts. When their long bombs aren't falling, the Rockets, whose offensive scheme eschews two-point shots unless they're at the rim, have little choice but to ask Harden to drive since they have no other serious threats down low.
As long as the paint is as stoutly protected as it was in the first playoff game, Harden is thus caught between a rock and a hard place.
Let's face it: Harden's attack of the rim could best be described as aggressive. Why not fight fire with fire?
The Thunder did, coming after Harden early. It seemed to throw Harden off his game, as he got only three free-throw attempts after the first quarter. The Thunder also kept Harden from finding the open man, holding him to exactly zero assists in the first half.
Incredibly, five of the top-20-rated defensive players thus far in the playoff performers are Thunder: Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, Durant and Sefolosha.
If they keep that level of defensive effort and mastery up, it will be difficult for Harden to get going.
Ultimately, the most effective mental game the other team can play with Harden is to make him think he's got to put the team on his back. Because as good as Harden is, once he feels like he's got to make something happen, you can almost visibly see the difference in his game. He plays more desperately; he forces shots and looks less often for his teammates.
That's not a knock on Harden. It's simply a crack in his armor, based to some degree on the Rockets' lack of consistent offensive complements to Harden, other than Parsons.
Harden must be aware of this mental game. In addition, an adjustment coach Kevin McHale could make would be to have Harden rely on his step-back jumper more.
If I were McHale, I'd also tell Harden to put his primary focus in the next game on being a red herring: in other words, drawing defensive pressure before swinging the ball to Parsons or Lin. It would be so unexpected, it just might work.
Regardless of the counter-strategy chosen, adjustments must be made.
Otherwise, we might well be forced to bid Harden and his Rockets so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen and goodbye.
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