He'd already made 13 appearances in his first professional season, but Los Angeles Lakers rookie Ryan Kelly's proper welcome to the NBA came Wednesday night at the hands of Houston Rockets guard James Harden. Or, maybe more accurately, at Harden's feet:
This might be the closest that a Eurostep has come to actually sending a defender on a trans-Atlantic trip. Yipes.
Now, as you watch this play, you may find yourself wondering why the officials didn't blow the whistle on Harden for traveling. (Well, unless you're a nightly NBA viewer well-versed in how rare traveling calls against stars actually are. Hey there, Dwyane.) However, Harden's bread-and-butter move actually straddles the line between traveling and two-step thanks to his practiced leveraging of a specific quirk in the rulebook, as detailed last year in a great explainer by Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward:
Harden’s cadence is a world apart, largely because of his cunning manipulation of the “gather” provision of the rule.
To clear up any confusion, the 2012-13 NBA Rulebook states as follows in Rule 9, Section XIII, Item (b):
A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball. A player who receives the ball while he is progressing must release the ball to start his dribble before his second step.
The first step occurs when a foot, or both feet, touch the floor after gaining control of the ball.
The rules note that a player’s first step occurs after gaining control of the ball. In other words, a player is allowed to collect the ball in his hands as he takes one step, and follow up with two more full strides. Harden’s incredible driving and finishing ability comes as a result of his understanding of what’s allowed in this regard, as well as his mastery of timing and spacing those three steps.
Run it back and check for yourself: Did Harden has full control of the ball as he took his first right step just past the foul line? Or did he "gain control" after taking that step while moving to his left, then hit Kelly with the one-two en route to the cup? If you're finding yourself going back and forth on the matter, then you probably understand why this one wasn't blown dead, and why Harden's ability to get the most out of the letter of the law makes his Eurostep as lethal a go-to transition move as there is in the league.
Harden's shakedown was so severe as to inspire sympathy for Kelly from one of his own Rockets teammates:
Jeremy Lin on Harden's Euro-step smoking of rookie Ryan Kelly. "Oh my gosh. I feel bad for him." http://t.co/ib3k7oscfx
— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) January 9, 2014
So kind of you, Jeremy. Your running buddy was a bit less kind during his post-game interview, offering a chilly line to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: "It was mano-a-mano, give me your best shot. I gave it to him.” I think we can all agree on that.
Kelly was far from the only Laker that Harden gave it to on Wednesday — the surging Rockets off-guard was an equal opportunity offender at Toyota Center, toying with Mike D'Antoni's defense time and again en route to another huge performance:
Harden was huge after halftime, pouring in 17 points on 10 shots in the third quarter to continue his recent streak of sensational post-intermission scoring. He outscored the Lakers by himself in the third, as the combination of some cranked-up Houston defense and punchless Lakers offense (6 for 18 in the frame, with only Nick Young and Jordan Hill providing a spark) helped the Rockets take control of the game and cruise home to a 113-99 victory, moving Houston percentage points ahead of the Golden State Warriors into the No. 5 slot in the Western Conference.
Harden finished with a game-high 38 points on 14 for 23 shooting, adding four rebounds and four assists on the way to a new line item in the Rockets' record books:
@JHarden13 is the first Rocket to score at least 37 points in 3 consecutive games since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994-95
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) January 9, 2014
Not bad company, huh?
Perhaps Harden's most noteworthy stat, however? Five steals, which were an integral part of the Rockets forcing 18 Lakers turnovers, off which Houston scored 26 points. That was especially sweet for a player whose defense has frequently been assailed in recent months. More from Feigen:
“The five steals, definitely,” Harden said when asked his preference. “The steals got me the points. Defensively, just picking up the intensity. If we play defense, our offense is going to be more effective.” [...]
When the Rockets finally cranked up the defense, the Lakers went from making 45.8 percent of their shots in the first half to 33.3 percent in the third quarter. The Lakers had more turnovers in the third quarter (7) than the Rockets had committed in the game (6).
“We played a lot harder and just go more aggressive,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “We got up into them. In the first half, we had a lot of individual breakdowns and just one-on-one plays. We let them go to their strong hand and they broke us down and it was really easy. We did a better job in the second half defending. It was the difference in the game.”
I'm willing to bet that young Mr. Kelly will be hearing about how important defending is when the Lakers break down the film of this one, too. (And maybe for a while after that.)
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