One week after welcoming Ryan Kelly to the NBA with a vicious Eurostep that faked the Los Angeles Lakers rookie halfway to Luxembourg, James Harden reached back into his bag of tricks once again Wednesday night to do mean, mean things to New Orleans Pelicans sophomore Austin Rivers.
After a 12-4 run over the preceding 3 1/2 minutes, the Houston Rockets had the ball with the game knotted at 100 and 47 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Small forward Chandler Parsons triggered the inbounds to guard Jeremy Lin, trailed by New Orleans defender Rivers above the 3-point arc just left of the center of the floor. We pick up the action with Harden, marked by Pelicans guard Eric Gordon, inching his way from the right elbow toward the top of the key:
After receiving the ball from Lin and picking up Rivers on a switch, Harden jabbed, rocked, took a hard dribble to the right and then stopped, leaving Rivers careening out of control toward the baseline. His sightline unencumbered by defenders, Harden stepped back, elevated for a wide-open jumper just inside the 3-point line, and calmly splashed it through to give the Rockets a 102-100 lead with 28 seconds remaining.
The move was sweet in real time, but for my money, this still-life look at the moment of truth, captured by Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert, is even better:
Sorry, Austin. Your princess is in another castle.
After advancing the ball past half-court with a timeout, the Pelicans had a chance to equalize or go for the win with 28 ticks left on the clock. But New Orleans' initial action — a curl for rising star forward Anthony Davis to draw defender Terrence Jones out of the paint followed by a Jason Smith off-ball screen intended to free up Gordon at the foul line — went nowhere, thanks to Smith whiffing in his attempt to screen Parsons, the Rockets wing hustling to make Gordon put the ball on the deck, and Dwight Howard staying parked in the paint to force Gordon into a hasty kickout rather than a layup attempt for the tie.
Monty Williams' team still had a chance, but a Smith jumper from the top of the key — not a terrible option, considering Smith's a quality pick-and-pop player who's shooting just over 40 percent from that spot on the floor, according to NBA.com's shot charts, but perhaps not the best possible option with 10 seconds left on the shot clock — hit back-rim and bounced out to Parsons, who grabbed the rebound and got fouled. Parsons made one of two, forcing New Orleans into a 3-point attempt to extend the game, but Darius Miller's fading try from the right wing went awry to seal a 103-100 win that gave Houston its fifth win in six games and extended the reeling Pelicans' season-worst losing streak to seven.
The step-back-and-splash capped a near-perfect fourth quarter for Harden, who made all three of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws to score 12 of his team-high 26 points in the final stanza. (The "near" comes from his two turnovers in the frame, but I suppose we can forgive him that just this once.) And while the final dagger might have seemed like an exercise in the sort of one-on-one play that the efficiency-obsessed Rockets might frown upon, Harden's evildoing on Rivers grew out of a specific strategic decision and play call, as TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz details:
[The Rockets had] one goal in mind: Take Harden’s primary defender, Eric Gordon, out of the play and draw a lesser perimeter defender on the switch. The way to accomplish that? A "small-small" pick-and-roll -- one guard picking for the other guard.
"Teams don't know how to guard it," Harden said. "Late in the game, either you’re going to switch it and put a smaller guy on me or they’re going to try to show and get confused. It worked tonight." [...]
"The problem is the guy who’s setting [the screen] can shoot," [Pelicans head coach] Williams said. "If you try to hedge it and that guy pops, he’s going to get a shot. We wanted to try to keep Eric [Gordon] on him as much as we could. So we got [Brian Roberts] out of the game and put Austin [Rivers] in to try to give us some more size in case they do it again."
Harden set the screen on Rivers to Lin’s right (go figure) and, sure enough, when Lin turned the corner, there was Gordon waiting for him. Switch accomplished with relative ease.
"We run that play a lot, especially late in the game," Harden said. "We don’t really run it in the beginning of the game. They switched it, and Jeremy threw it back to me."
From there, as Harden said after the game, "It was mano-a-mano," and Harden won the hand-to-hand combat, thanks in large part to his fancy footwork.
Video via ClutchFans.
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