In the third quarter of a recent game at the TD Garden, James Harden is crouched down, facing Kyrie Irving. The Boston Celtics guard is crafty, explosive, speedy — the kind of player who has mercilessly torched Harden and contributed to his infamous defensive lowlight reels. And he is revving up like he knows it.
Irving crosses to his left. Harden mirrors him, so Irving tries to muscle past him on his right. That’s when Clint Capela, the Houston Rockets’ defensive anchor, catches up to switch. Before retreating to Capela’s man, Harden swipes at the ball, forcing Irving to pick it up, and then he plants himself inside the only open passing lane on the floor, goading Irving to throw the ball right into Harden’s hands. That’s exactly what Irving does, as Harden snatches his second steal of the night en route to the Rockets’ fifth straight victory on March 3.
It’s no coincidence that Harden’s best defensive season has dawned while the arms race between offensive space and the defenders who encroach on it teeters toward an ancient creed: Even in the NBA, all warfare is based on deception.
Brute force is proving no match for subtle sleights of hand — look-offs, head fakes, pass fakes and hesitations. Defenses, tired of holding up a piece of cardboard against a tidal wave, have gotten craftier, too. There’s the XL, where one defender tricks two weakside spacers into thinking he can close out on them, and stunted rotations, where the defender momentarily sags off a shooter just to persuade a driving player to kick the ball out. Being in position is just as important as convincing your opponent you’ll be in position, which is fertile ground for Harden, the NBA’s most talented actor, whether he’s flopping to draw a foul or lulling defenders to sleep before popping a shot in their faces.
Harden is enjoying the best statistical season of his career, scoring a godly 36.2 points, dishing out 7.5 assists and picking up 2.1 steals per game. “It’s funny to say that he got better,” Capela said. “Especially when you see a player average 30, you think that’s it. Not gonna go higher than that. And then … he keeps going.” But while his guile wins games, it loses fans. If Harden wrangles his second MVP award from Giannis Antetokounmpo’s monstrous grip, it will not be by way of grace or storyline, but, like much of his game, by overwhelming numerical force.
He started building his case early in December, when a string of injuries, imperfect shooting and losses threatened Houston’s season. The Rockets looked disconnected, even dispirited. After losing to the Utah Jazz and dropping to 13th place in the West, veteran guard Eric Gordon confessed, “I’m just not having fun.” That’s when Harden flipped the switch, tearing off a 32-game 30-point scoring streak spanning 10 weeks that included 17 missed games from fellow All-Star Chris Paul, 15 missed games from Capela, and eight from Gordon. The unsustainable became the inevitable, catapulting the Rockets back into NBA Finals contention. “He’s phenomenal,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He saved us. He turned the whole season around.”
Rockets defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik took note of something else: Harden was imposing his superior intellect on his biggest weakness — defense. “He’s an intelligent guy,” Bzdelik said. “He knows his positioning well. That’s why he’s able to get those deflections, steals and he knows how to defend in the post. His intelligence allows him to anticipate, and the anticipation gets him in position in a quicker, positive way. Because he scores so much, a lot of that is overlooked.”
He has swiped more balls than anyone but Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George. Harden leads the NBA with 3.8 deflections per game, despite the fact that his average speed — among players who actually play — is the second slowest in the NBA, ahead of only Dirk Nowitzki. Harden isn’t zipping all over the floor or gambling for steals. Good decision-making in the age of deception is not a matter of taking the right risks; it’s recognizing which plays aren’t risky at all. On both sides of the ball, Harden moves economically. He uses his mind to outplay opponents, regulating his fatigue while playing 37.3 minutes per game and leading the NBA in usage rate.
“Shawn Marion was a little bit like that,” D’Antoni said of the player he coached with the Phoenix Suns. “He could play big minutes and play forever. There are certain guys who do it. As they say, [Harden] is a fast healer. He could turn his ankle one day and the next day it looks like he didn’t turn it. James is durable. A lot of minutes. He’s 29. That’s probably not talked about enough, how he carries this load all the time.”’
Pacing himself for the playoffs? Harden won’t hear of it. He rejects the edicts of load management and injury prevention. Ball players play ball games. “I just love to hoop,” Harden said. “I just love to play basketball. This time won’t last forever. You know what I’m saying? So I embrace it. I enjoy the grind. I enjoy tired legs. I enjoy having to find ways.”
His obsession with the game is all-consuming. He can’t stop playing or searching the margins of the rulebook for edges to exploit and moves to invent, like the double-stepback jumper that, by the book, is not a travel. The gamesmanship alone should be admirable. Here is a player who is redefining the shape of the game by maximizing his greatest skill in a league that is slowly favoring it more and more. He became elite by taking the only avenue allowed to him and trying things nobody before dared to.
Sounds familiar, right? So why don’t fans love Harden like they loved Steph Curry? Hell, why don’t they love him at all?
“He gets to the foul line a lot, and opposing fans don’t like it,” D’Antoni said. “He tricks the other players, and opposing fans don’t like it. You hear the boos and stuff. Too bad, you know? He is smart and he knows what he can do and he gets guys to fall for it.”
Harden is a trickster who’s largely impervious to his own ploys. He splits weak double-teams, Eurosteps away from stunts, forces commitment and senses patterns. He knows when you mean it, while making himself hard to read in turn; his floater and lob even take on the same form until the final flick of the wrist.
He’s an innovator, pushing the game in a direction few want to see it go. More threes? Great. Exciting. More free throws? Not so much. Every barreling drive and arm lock reconfigures the league every so slightly in his image. It likely won’t win him any affection or a second MVP. But that won’t change the facts: The game is becoming all exploitive neuroscience, a series of brain games that evoke false reads. And Harden’s beady eyes have cut through the rubbish like nothing else.
More from Yahoo Sports: