James Harden was a step behind J.J. Redick all night. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
James Harden didn't offer the Houston Rockets a ton in 33 lackluster minutes on Monday night — just 15 points for the All-Star two-guard on 6 for 16 shooting, including an 0-for-7 mark from 3-point land, and relatively little spark off the bounce. Compounding the sin, though, was the 24-year-old's effort, or lack thereof, on defense, as he stood idly by and watched (mostly literally) the likes of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley (41 combined points on sharp 14 for 26 shooting) give All-World orchestrator Chris Paul plenty of help as the Los Angeles Clippers ran the Rockets out of the Staples Center.
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Lazy reaching, falling asleep to allow back-cuts, lackadaisical help, slow work in transition ... even for a player who's never exactly been confused with a lockdown defender, the outing was bracingly bad. After the game, though, Harden struck a collective note in describing the defensive failings, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
“We talked about it before the game,” Harden said. “They always get off to a great start in the first quarter. We tried to fight back the entire game. We just put ourselves in a tough position."
Asked about his own struggles, Harden said, “Sluggish. We just didn’t get any stops on the defensive end. We have [to] pride ourselves on the defensive end. Tonight, we just didn’t get it done.”
Now, to be fair, you can't entirely pin 137 points on just one guy; it takes a lot of things going wrong at once to be that porous and awful. Still, though, it's pretty difficult to feel like Harden wouldn't do well to change that first-person plural to the first-person singular, especially on second watch:
As the poet said: "Yikes." (Look on the bright side, James: At least nobody added a "Yakety Sax" soundtrack.)
The good news about a clip like this is that it could (hopefully) reinforce just how basic stuff like trying harder and paying attention can help improve a defense from very bad to middling; as Daily Thunder's Royce Young notes, Harden's shown in the past that he's capable of playing pretty sound defense when he's dialed in.
The bad news, of course, is that Harden's effort, focus and awareness flagged in just the fourth game of the season against an elite Western Conference opponent in a game where the Rockets had a chance to plant a flag and show that, in Harden's second year with the club and after the acquisition of Dwight Howard, they merit consideration among the league's big boys. We're a long ways away from the dog days of the regular-season; if the Rockets' top gun is getting lost already, is he going to be willing to lock in when Houston's grinding out games in search of improved playoff positioning? The thought can't be a particularly exciting one for Rockets fans to ponder right now, but it's also one you have to expect they're having a hard time shaking.
Now, quick: While they're thinking really hard about that, cut behind them and get a layup. So easy, anyone can do it!
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