The fun and frisky Brooklyn Nets deserve enormous credit for their overtime road win in Houston Wednesday night. Even with almost every useful non-Harden Rockets player either on the shelf or suddenly a member of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, that’s still an impressive outcome, especially on a night when Harden went for another 58 points on 34 shots.
A week ago the Bucks sold out to prevent Harden from getting to his left hand, in a comfortable Milwaukee victory. That was about as aggressive and desperate a point-of-attack strategy as Harden has seen in his NBA career, and to the extent that it can be said to have worked, its success has to be measured in the context of a reasonably efficient 42-point performance, leaning heavily on the game’s result and Harden’s halting, staccato rhythm and frustrated body language as indicators. Teams will for sure stash the idea away for use in high-leverage situations, but if it is deployed against the Rockets nightly, Harden and the Rockets will solve it, just as sure as you were born. In the meantime, Harden has averaged a hysterical, impossible-seeming 49 points per game in the four games since that loss.
Also since that loss, the Rockets have added Clint Capela and Danuel House to their list of missing contributors, which means they are leaning even more heavily on your various Gary Clarks and James Nunnallys and Pervis Rumproasts and Isaiah Hartensteins, and also I swear I made up only one of those names. Late in overtime Wednesday night, holding onto a one-point lead, the Brooklyn Nets made the very astute observation that an outcome that involves any available Rocket other than Harden shooting the ball, even wide open, is preferable to just about any shot Harden might cook up for himself. This was a do-or-die possession for both teams, and so naturally the Nets decided to leave a player completely unguarded for a potential game-winning three:
Steph Curry makes defenses come unglued and fly apart by scurrying around the perimeter. Joel Embiid’s post catches suck extra defenders into the paint the way a supermassive black hole tugs on light. Over-helping defenders know Giannis Antetokounmpo cannot be stopped from dunking if he gets within 18 feet with a live dribble and his chest pointed at the basket. This is Harden’s unique type of floor-warping gravity: He causes defenses to throw themselves into whole crazy abstract shapes simply by having the ball within 10 feet of the top of the key. It’s better—far, far better, in fact—to let Austin Rivers shoot a wide open three pointer in a one-point game than it is to let Harden do anything at all.
The last five shots attempted by the Rockets in this loss were taken by players not named James Harden, in no small part because the Nets assumed whatever shape they had to in order to deny Harden clean catches and then force the ball out of his hands. When the Rockets have their full complement of players, they should be equipped to render this kind of shit pointless and self-destructive. In the meantime, you can’t throw too many defenders at him. There is no defense that is too stupid for the job.