James Harden on His Unique Style of Play: 'You Probably Won't Ever See It Again'

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2018

Houston Rockets' James Harden reacts after hitting a three-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Indianapolis. Houston won 98-94. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

It's fitting that James Harden plays just a stone's throw away from one of NASA's field centers.

For the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player, basketball is all about space.

He creates it, challenges it, operates on his own axis within it.

"Creating space is one of the biggest parts of the game of basketball," Harden told Bleacher Report at his in-store appearance at the Adidas store in Houston's Galleria Mall. "If you don't have space, you're not able to do anything. You always have somebody riding you or being physical with you, but if you can create that space, no matter how much space it is, you can get your shot off.

"But for me, I don't need that much space, so these last few years, I've been learning different ways to create space to get my shot off or finish towards the rim. I know a lot of players in the NBA still struggle with that."

According to Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, there's a fundamental link between time and space.

The universe can be viewed in three space dimensions: up/down, left/right and forward/backward. Then there's the time dimension.

Those four dimensions are known as the space-time continuum.

This is where Harden is at his best. He dribbles the ball like a metronome, dancing left and right, then stepping forward and backward, juking up and down before striking with offensive fury.

When Harden has the ball in his hands, he's a virtuoso, lulling defenders into his orbit, only to leave them floating in zero gravity.

It's as if time stands still for anyone who dares to guard him. 

The six-time All-Star tried to capture the concept of that space-time continuum—visually, at least—in his signature Harden Vol. 3 sneaker.

"Houston gave me this opportunity, and I think if it wasn't for Houston and the Rockets, I wouldn't be where I am," Harden said. "So it's always in me to kind of give back and make sure I represent them well. The NASA idea, I can use that metaphor to represent how I create my space on the court. It makes sense. It all plays a part in who I am and what I bring to the table."

SANTA MONICA, CA - JUNE 25: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets talks to the media during a press conference after winning the Most Valuable Player Award at the NBA Awards Show on June 25, 2018 at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California. NOTE TO
NBA Photos/Getty Images

Harden is coming off a banner year. After leading Houston to the best record in franchise history (65-17) and pushing the Golden State Warriors to the brink of elimination in the Western Conference Finals, the league's leading scorer finished the 2017-18 season with the biggest cherry on top: the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

"Coming off an MVP Season, it's a great feeling, honestly," Harden said. "But I think every year until I probably can't play anymore, that's the conversation that I want to be in. I've been in it for the last four years, and I plan on being in it for the next four at least. If you're in those conversations every single year, you're doing something right; you're one of the top 3-4 best players in the league, every year, consistently, and that's tough to do. I'm not just one year, so that's an individual goal.

"But an overall goal is to be in the Finals and, you know, holding up a championship. We were extremely close last year, but we still got a long way to go, you know, we gotta continue to get better, continue to grow, and those are the goals. If you're in that conversation, you're playing until the end of June, you're doing something right."

This season hasn't been as promising, at least not from the start. The Rockets are languishing at 6-7 and are 12th in the Western Conference standings.

If Houston is going to find its way back to contention, it's Harden who will have to get his team there. His overall numbers are down slightly this year (27.9 points, 7.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game), but it won't be long before he elevates his player efficiency and unleashes his lethal first step on the rest of the league.

"That first step is deadly," Harden said. "That step...nothing you can compare it to, you know. It always keeps the defender second-guessing himself. With that first step, I can get to the basket, or I can jab you and shoot right over you, or I can cross you over from that first step so that triple-threat position, that first step, is deadly.”

Harden's not afraid to show some hubris. But he is granted some latitude in that area when he has the ability to score at will while leaving defenders stranded on "Harden's Island."

"Harden's Island is a tough place to be," Harden said. "You don't have any floaties or a boat. You're just in the water, and you don't have anything to save you."

Former Los Angeles Clippers forward Wesley Johnson knows that firsthand after taking a spill last season when Harden dropped him with a mean step-back dribble. After staring down Johnson, Harden drained a three-pointer with dramatic effect.

It was cold, calculated and made for the highlight reel.

"I know I'm able to drop someone or make a good move just by looking them in their face," Harden said. "Or looking at their feet, seeing how they're playing me. Certain guys have different mindsets on how to play defense. And looking in their eye, if they look nervous or if they're second-guessing themselves, I can tell."

That's what separates Harden from the rest of the pack.

He's crafty, deceptively quick and has the nimble and rhythmic footwork of a tap dancer. 

That ability to stop and go and turn on a dime is his trademark, a method he likes to call "slow down fast."

"Slow down fast doesn't make sense, but my game doesn't make sense," Harden said. "I think every single year, I just try to figure out a way to create an advantage. That's what it is...create an advantage and making sure I'm on top. So my game isn't normal. I don't think you've ever seen anyone play this way. Obviously, you've seen guys do step-backs and Eurosteps, but if you combine all of my moves and the way I play, me being able to stop and go, me being able to keep a defender off balance and have him second-guessing and third-guessing, or even a second defender, you probably won't ever see it again. But that's what I bring to the table.”

After sitting out with an injured hamstring, Harden has been working on returning to his MVP-caliber play. 

In his first three games, he averaged just 24.0 points, 6.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds. What's alarming, though, is his turnovers. He's had 33 in six contests since his return. 

Still, Harden's been in his bag in clutch situations, like his recent head-to-head battles with Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 5th and 11th. He and the Rockets came out on top, both times, and those victories were buoyed by his uncanny ability to create open space for his shot.

"Whoever has to guard me is unlucky for sure," Harden said. "I don't care who you are. Yeah, I'm talking to you."

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