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James Harden Feasts Off OKC Thunder's 'Trash' Pick-and-Roll Defense in Game 1

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2017

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 16:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets goes to the basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the Western Conference Quarter-finals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 16, 2017 at Toyota Center in Houston, TX. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

HOUSTON — This was supposed to be James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook. And it's supposed to be close.

But the key matchup in the NBA playoffs' most compelling first-round series might not be superstar A vs. superstar B. Rather, it's James Harden vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder frontcourt. And Thunder big man Steven Adams knows who came up short in Game 1.

Adams and his fellow giants were forced to switch onto Harden throughout the Houston Rockets' lopsided 118-87 win Sunday night in the playoff opener.

"The second half came down to mentally locking down our reads," Adams said. "The bigs, especially me, played trash on the reads, and the pick-and-rolls were absolute garbage. We have to get back to the drawing board and kind of look at how we can give a better effort in Game 2."

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Harden, who finished with a game-high 37 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, holds all the cards vs. the Thunder perimeter scheme. His ability to take advantage of the mismatches on defensive switches helped the Rockets find another path to victory, finishing with a points-in-the-paint advantage of 62-38.

"All the points in the paint came from our pick-and-roll coverages," Adams said. "Again, that was the bigs being trash."

Harden's second half should be the Rockets' working blueprint moving forward. During the final 24 minutes, he finished 3-of-5 from deep, shot 8-of-8 from the free-throw line and took Enes Kanter on free tours of Toyota Center.

"As a point guard, I have to try to find ways to split the defense," Harden said. "They're switching with the big and they were taking our three-pointers away, so I just tried to get to the basket. I think I missed my first six or seven shots from the perimeter, and I knew that wasn't going to go on for long, but I just continued to stay with it and continued to be aggressive. I made some shots, but I just try to make the right play. Every game that's my mindset. I try to get these guys shots, making sure everyone is in a good rhythm."

The Rockets are already thinking about their next chess move. Head coach Mike D'Antoni has a counter ready for Game 2.

"If they stay on the shooters, then we'll take layups," D'Antoni said. "If they rotate next game, then we will take threes. Then if you read the game right, you have to pick one or the other.

"We talk about it all year how smart he is and how he figures it out and it just takes him a little bit to know that he can get to the rim. And they were switching everything and he was just exploiting what was there. That's what he does. If he's not the best, I don't know."

This is all great news for Houston's frontcourt. When Thunder bigs focus on the Rockets' three-point shooters, Clint Capela gets a wide-open lane to abuse. "When they do that, I am ready," said Capela. "I have my mind set on being ready, and I try to get to the rim and bring some energy, and I was able to do that tonight."

Outside of shooting a horrid 28.9 percent from the field in the second half, things really started to fall apart for OKC after Adams set a pick that leveled Patrick Beverley. The Thunder turned the ball over nine times in the third and let the Rockets go on a 54-28 run the rest of the way.

One of the keys to Houston's late-game rout was the disparity in second-chance points. The Rockets outscored OKC 31-4.

"It just comes down to hard-nosed effort and making multiple efforts," Adams said. "Help side you help, and then you have to sprint back and box out and make sure you don't lose sight. I don't know what they had at the half, but it was something stupid. If we cut some of those down, we would have been in a pretty good spot."

Houston also separated itself from OKC on the boards. Beverley pulled down 10 rebounds to go along with his playoff career-high 21 points, and Ryan Anderson grabbed a playoff career-high 12 rebounds, helping the Rockets outrebound the Thunder 56-41. Houston's rebounding edge was impressive considering OKC led the NBA in total rebounding percentage in the regular season at 53.4.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

"They didn't particularly shoot the ball the way they wanted in the first half, but they stuck with it, and this is the playoffs and that's what it's all about," Andre Roberson said. "Who is going to be the team that wants it more? Tonight they wanted it more. We have to go back to the drawing board and see what we did wrong and see what we can do better and go from there."

Should the Thunder continue to switch their bigs on the Rockets guards as part of their three-point defense, Harden will be ready to make the necessary adjustments. It's the reason D'Antoni trusted him with floor-spacing discretion in the first place. In Houston's spread floor offense, Harden has carte blanche, room to create, to paint the perfect scoring picture.

"We've had numerous games when we're not shooting the ball well," Harden said. "We have to find different ways to win. We kept preaching to them, we're not going to shoot the ball well all the time, so we got to find other ways to win. We just got to figure it out. Tonight was a game, tonight we played defensively really well. We didn't shoot the ball well, but we got to the paint and we finished. So next game, we might shoot the ball better, who knows? As long as we hang our hat on defense and we lock in and we know the game plan."

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats accurate as of April 17 and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ReeseReport.

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