Enjoy James Harden and the Rockets while you can, because their style may not be sustainable in playoffs

Yahoo Sports

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

Take One: The Houston Rockets are must-watch

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We get it. You think the Rockets are boring. They run the same plays over and over again. All they do is flop and shoot free throws. Maybe they’re even ruining basketball. Who isn’t these days, right?

Houston’s offense operates with rigid discipline. The Rockets run and run James Harden off screens until he finds a tenable matchup to exploit. Tenable, so we’re clear, is a loosely defined term for a player who only needs a sliver of space to shoot from anywhere on the floor, whose combined ball-handling and strength psychs out defenders and referees alike.

Everyone knows what James Harden is going to do and he does it anyway. (Getty Images)
Everyone knows what James Harden is going to do and he does it anyway. (Getty Images)

It is repetitive, sure, but in a way that’s endlessly fascinating. The Rockets repeatedly put the ball in the hands of the one of the NBA’s most creative, destructive scorers and wait for him to find a sieve — or create one. Harden now holds the second-longest 30-point scoring streak in NBA history, breaking 31 games in Wednesday night’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he’s averaging a league-scorching 36.5 points per game.

I’d argue all that makes the Rockets more watchable than most teams, which dilly-dally for possessions at a time, only looking to optimize in the face of urgency. You won’t find any freewheeling action from Iguodala-types in Houston. Even Austin Rivers has (mostly) held himself in check. Every time I turn on a Rockets game, Harden or Chris Paul has possession of the ball and is on the cusp of doing something. The game becomes a successive highlight reel that doesn’t allow you to turn the dial.

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

The same quality that makes the Rockets so entertaining right now — and will likely garner Harden a second MVP — might be what hurts them in the playoffs again. The fuse is burning bright: Harden holds the ball an average of 9.6 seconds when he touches it, the highest mark in the NBA. His usage rate is 39 percent, smashing second place by 7 percent. What Harden’s doing might not be the best idea for the Rockets’ future outlook.

But it’s definitely not boring. Even on defense, an opponent can make a name for himself with a signature moment against Harden — just ask Josh Okogie.

As for as Harden’s high free-throw attempts bogging the game down, I won’t be convinced that a generation that cuts away to their iPhone screen 50 times per day is that bothered by an opportunity to look away from the action. When Harden’s playing, it’s the only chance you’re going to get.

Take Two: Is the rest of the NBA ignoring the inevitability of the Golden State Warriors?

Because it seems like it, at least in the East. For the past few weeks, the dominant Warriors storyline has been about how Kevin Durant’s impending free agency could impact their title run. After a win against the Utah Jazz two nights ago, Durant said he feels the team is not playing well. These are the same Warriors, mind you, who are 16-3 since the New Year. Not only have they won all 11 games DeMarcus Cousins has played in — they’ve blown the tops off buildings, outscoring opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions. Until July 1, Warriors inevitability reigns.

Why is it, then, that the Eastern Conference is littered with high-end teams that made big bets on winning this year? The Boston Celtics made their bed a while ago, with Kyrie Irving’s contract expiring when the season ends. The Toronto Raptors traded franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for a chance to woo Kawhi Leonard for a season. Then they doubled down by trading for Marc Gasol. In sum, the 76ers exchanged Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, two first-round picks and two second-round picks for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, a pair of stars with deals that expire at the end of the year.

(Side note: At least one of these three teams has to flame out in the second round. And then what does it do? For once, the playoff drama will be in the East, if not the title.)

Could it be possible that the Warriors are so dominant that they’ve convinced the rest of the NBA to change the goalposts of ultimate success? Because as it stands right now, we’ve got a set of teams that went all in on trying to get to second place. It feels more like they’re auditioning for a post-Warriors future than trying to succeed in the current landscape. Even in a world where success is narrowly defined by wins and losses, perception is everything. And some things are inherent: If the rest of the NBA can’t compete against the Warriors, they still can’t help but compete against themselves.

Take Three: The Anthony Davis situation is ugly. It’s also the best-case scenario

The aftermath of the most emboldened trade request in recent NBA history has been ugly. Anthony Davis is not a Laker — or a Knick or a Celtic or a Buck for that matter. And the New Orleans Pelicans don’t seem to have much use for him either. They’d rather sit him and pile up losses, focus on the lottery race and protect Davis’ health so they can trade him in the offseason. But the NBA issued a directive: The Pelicans would be fined $100,000 for every game he sat.

So it is that after playing well enough to keep the Pelicans in it, Davis was benched in the fourth quarter two games in a row. Then, against the Orlando Magic, they got blown out by 30 points, which led to Davis — chef’s kiss — criticizing the team’s effort. So things aren’t good. What’s worse: It doesn’t seem like they’re going to get any better.

Thanks to the NBA’s orders, this is the only reasonable compromise for both the Pelicans and Davis. He gets to pervert his livelihood — surely important to a man who has spent so many days involuntarily sidelined by injuries — while the Pelicans at least get to lose some of the time.

Here’s what it comes down to: The NBA can’t make a decision that weighs the Pelicans real interests, because it can’t be so blithely rational about what’s best for them, which is tanking. In an alternate universe with no draft lottery, the Pelicans might at least be incentivized to let Davis play when it matters to get fans in seats. But the league won’t acknowledge its worst kept secret, so a dysfunctional situation is primed to only get worse.

Take Four: The Philadelphia 76ers need to impose their will

Nothing like the 76ers to get the Boston Celtics going. And nothing like a loss to the Celtics on Tuesday night to spread anxiety in the lives of 76ers fans.

Despite the addition of Tobias Harris, the 76ers lost to the Kyrie-less Celtics in the same ways they’ve habitually lost to them: The Celtics stuck like glue to the few shooters the 76ers play at the same time and treated Ben Simmons like a non-entity, while Al Horford ate Joel Embiid’s lunch. The Sixers couldn’t protect the perimeter on the other end, so they never got much of a chance to get out in transition.

I won’t write them off as quickly as I did after Christmas, if only because Harris is the type of sharpshooter who could tip the scales in favor of an old-school style — if they’re willing to embrace it.

Since trading for Jimmy Butler in November, the Sixers are seventh in pace, 11th in defense and 16th in offensive rebounding. This is a team with three starters who are above 6-foot-8, including the league’s most imposing center since Shaq, but it’s stuck in the middle because it’s trying to fit old-school parts into a new-school game. The league has been crashing full-tilt into more space and pace for years, so you can forgive the Sixers for trying, but you don’t win championships by playing against your strengths.

Philadelphia should be slow, plodding, muscly and mean. It should crash the glass with impunity, hunt cross-matches with pick-and-rolls and bully defenders in the post. The mere idea of entering the paint against the 76ers should make opponents cower with fear.

The only rub is that slowing it down doesn’t serve Ben Simmons’ style, but they’re going to have to figure out the inevitable tension between his transition-happy game and Embiid’s half-court dominance eventually. Better to do it while playing to your strengths and find out if it works now, instead of two years down the road.

Take Five: On identity

Following Jeremy Lin’s first game as a Raptor, he took to the podium and shared some interesting thoughts on the presence of the international media. Here are some snippets, from the Toronto Star:

“Yeah, [Mandarin media] probably happens in every city that has a strong Asian contingent,” Lin said. “Happened in Atlanta as well, but not this. So again, I’m very proud to represent Asian people on a global platform, on a global scale. And for me to be here where there’s a lot of Asians, like, I used to run from it, you know?

“Because that’s all anybody’s ever wanted to look for. Like, ‘Oh, he’s Asian, he’s Asian, he’s Asian.’ And I was like, talk about my basketball. But now people can see I can play, I belong in the NBA, and I’ve really embraced just being able to represent Asians and do it the right way, hopefully.

“Yeah, I mean, I think I was really jaded after the New York stretch,” Lin continued. “I think there was a lot of things that happened that made me give up a little bit on people, per se. And that was a huge part of the story, and that was a huge point of contention for a lot of people as to why I was getting the publicity, or why things were the way they were.

“So I kind of wanted to run from that a little bit. I would probably say three years down the road, I kind of turned a corner, and I would say being hurt for two straight years, and seeing that my Asian fan base, I don’t feel like it dropped off one bit. And I haven’t even touched the court. Like, every year I go over to Asia and I can’t even walk through the airport — it’s insane. So to see them do that after all the highs and lows, but really going through the lows post-Linsanity, which culminated in those injuries, for me, I’m still blown away. And again, that’s fed into why I want to carry myself a certain way.”

I don’t have a lot to say here, except that it’s touching to see a man whose identity was leveraged and controlled by outside forces for so long get to stop running away from how he’s perceived and finally be himself: an NBA player who once turned the basketball universe on its head, an Asian-American, a God-fearing Harvard grad. He has lived long enough in the public eye that the public has finally accepted what they originally thought were contradictory traits. That, friends, is how stereotypes are broken.

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