Defending James Harden is an evolving game, but does it ultimately even matter?

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

Take One: The evolving Harden Rules

In the past year, defenses have employed any number of unusual tricks to prevent James Harden — the NBA’s leading regular-season scorer — from splashing in a taut 38 on 17 shots. Some even defended him with their hands behind their backs, a knowing wink to the sometimes obnoxious ploys Harden uses to get to the free-throw line, wrapped in a subtle insult: take away Harden’s ability to draw and manipulate contact, and he’s a much more average player. Well, Harden can stroke it pretty well, so that didn’t really work.

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But the Utah Jazz took the same principle, employed it to its logical extreme and gave Harden fits. His perimeter defender, usually Royce O’Neal, would often guard him from behind — on purpose, not because Harden blew by. After all, it’s hard to shoot when you know someone is creeping behind you, and it’s hard to draw fouls with your backside.

James Harden passes the ball around Rudy Gobert on Wednesday night in Game 5. (Getty Images)
James Harden passes the ball around Rudy Gobert on Wednesday night in Game 5. (Getty Images)

The Jazz turned the game into a 20-foot battlefield where Harden, running downhill and employing a series of deceptive tricks, would jostle with 7-foot-1 perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert’s anticipatory skills. It was exactly the kind of weird idea one could only conceive of and execute during the playoffs: a snippet of what worked — Gobert stymying Harden — being extrapolated into an entire strategy. Credit to O’Neal as well for executing an entirely counter-intuitive style of defense on a big stage against the NBA’s most prolific scorer. Even though they succumbed to the Rockets in five games on Wednesday night, it worked. In Game 3, Harden famously started 0-of-15 and shot 36.7 percent for the series.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)

It’s worth noting that by the end, Harden’s wheels started turning too. At first, his scoring was relegated to stepback jumpers and floaters squeezed between Gobert and O’Neal. By the fourth quarter of Game 5, he hunted more screens to get switched onto Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell. And against every defender on his back, he started sticking out his butt to create more space and create a true one-on-one situation with Gobert.

In the end, the Jazz simply couldn’t score enough to take advantage of the gambit, cracking 100 points just once in the series. The good thing for the Rockets: The teams that have the fuel to keep up with them offensively don’t have a player like Gobert down low.

Take Two: It was a bad shot. It was a spectacular shot

On Tuesday, Damian Lillard closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder with the shot heard around the NBA: a 3-pointer steps from the halfcourt logo, with 6-9 Paul George covering him.

After the game, George, of all people, called it a “bad shot,” which, regardless of what he meant, registered as the grandest of unintentional compliments, delivered right beside his podium buddy and teammate — and Lillard nemesis — Russell Westbrook.

George also set off a debate that was best left as an intellectual exercise. In the modern NBA, is a 40-foot haymaker even a bad shot?

Well … yes. Lillard said it himself, to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. “It’s a bad shot, but I was 8-of-12 from 30-plus feet in the series and I work on it regularly. ... It wasn’t a bad shot tonight.” There are some qualifiers that make it not as bad of a bad shot as other bad shots. Lillard, bless his soul, does indeed practice that shot, and his range is almost Curry-esque.

It’s a fun commentary on the direction of the pace-and-space era to say it isn’t, to contrast it with any of Westbrook’s 20 missed shots in Game 5 within much closer range. But do you know how I know it was a bad shot? Well, it’s the thing I love most about long jumpers: Because Lillard was so far from the rim that before you could even guess the trajectory on his shot, you had a few seconds to process the ridiculousness of the attempt, and in the crevasse between the shot leaving Lillard’s fingertips and splashing through the net, 99.999 percent of viewers were thinking, “Why the hell did he just do that?” The other 0.001 percent was Lillard.

And besides, if those weren’t the odds, we wouldn’t have loved it as much. Just like bad lobs and tight spin moves, bad shots are incredible shots. Shooting is the only thing we can measure with specificity, but the highest degree-of-difficulty moves are always going to be the ones that are the most likely to end in failure. We don’t know how many times Curry turns it over when he flips a pass over his shoulders into the paint while running in the opposite direction. But as a fan, every time I see a star try something intrepid, all I think is, “Man, I wish he would try that more.”

Then again …

Take Three: There’s a reason why you stay on 17

Ever wonder why offensive creativity clamps shut and isolation jump shots thrive in the closing minutes of nearly every close game? Look no further than the final three-and-a-half minutes of the Philadelphia 76ers’ razor-thin Game 4 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, where both teams turned the ball over five times.

It started with the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell beelining into the paint and getting stripped by Ben Simmons. Then the Nets’ Jarrett Allen faked a dribble hand-off set and tried to lead Spencer Dinwiddie into a corner three and passed the ball too high, sending it into the stands. On the next possession, the 76ers’ Joel Embiid tried to connect with a cutting Tobias Harris and got picked off by Joe Harris. In the final minute, Embiid pump-faked, passed up a midrange jumper, and flung the ball to JJ Redick in the corner, but not before Caris LeVert sprinted into the angle and intercepted it.

And then, of course, there was the final possession, when Russell found Allen on the roll, only for him to be triple-teamed and mauled before losing his grip. The next day’s Last Two Minute Report may have determined he was fouled, but that didn’t give the Nets a potentially game-winning possession back. In fact, a similar fate almost struck down the 76ers’ final possession. Before Embiid found Mike Scott for three, the shot that essentially won the game, Embiid nearly lost control of the ball a third time.

You may not like it. I don’t either. But in crunch time, intensity ratchets up, steady individuals turn frenetic and mistakes become more costly. The Nets led by five points with 4:34 to go in the game, but from that point on, they only took six shots — including a meaningless last-second three at the end of the game — while the 76ers took 11. That ended up being the difference.

Take Four: Next question

I don’t love writing about media stories. Not because I don’t find them interesting. Writers are inherently narcissistic, after all, so you know it’s not that. It’s because I can’t shake the fact that no matter how much I try to get a bird’s eye view of the situation, I’m likely going to be biased in ways I can’t understand. That said, I haven’t been able to stop this take from spinning around in my head, so maybe it’s best to just put it out there in the world.

Russell Westbrook doesn’t owe it to anyone to tell him or her what he wants, but one thing is clear: his treatment of the media has a lot more to do with wanting to be in control than it does with wanting to be left alone. Plenty of players offer up very little and garner less attention for it. But even when he’s being quiet, Westbrook manages to be loud. Defiance defines him. Instead of relinquishing an inch of ground with some canned answer, he has outright refused to answer Thunder beat writer Berry Tramel’s questions for months. As a result, his silence got noticed, and then it turned into a national story right at the same time the Thunder got destroyed by the Blazers, who were more than happy to let Westbrook take the reins on offense and watch him burn bright, clasping the ball so tightly between his hands that it couldn’t help but pop out.

I respect that Westbrook wants to be in control of his own narrative. But he certainly hasn’t managed to do it.

Take Five: Let’s give the refs a break

Speaking of a bird’s eye view, Michael Lewis, the author of “Moneyball,” launched a podcast on society’s disdain for rule-makers, and the first episode drew heavily from the tension between players and referees. He stepped back in a way only a generalist could and skewered the NBA, its fans and the players, making the modern treatment of referees — who are, at the core, responsible for mediating a game — seem silly and cruel.

Every decision they make is scrutinized. Every critical error is jotted down and released to the public in the Last Two Minute Report. Fans know their names. Death threats. Required security. The NBA Replay Center is essentially a multimillion-dollar investment that reverses an average of two calls per game. It bogs down the game, you say? Most plays are reviewed in an average of 20 to 30 seconds.

Still, the NBA has experimented with a chip that would allow referees to hear from the Replay Center during live action and make more accurate judgments in real time. All of which is to say: They’re trying, and every time a missed call feels serious, just try to remember that it’s not that serious.

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