A nemesis is defined as “a long-standing rival, an archenemy, the inescapable agent of something or somebody’s downfall.”
So yes, the Jazz have James Harden on their minds once again.
The league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, the man who does everything, the force that cannot be stopped, returns to the scene when Utah opens its best-of-seven first-round playoff series against Rockets in Houston on Sunday.
“Is there a formula?” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said when asked if there’s a blueprint to slowing Harden down. “Looking for it. If there’s one, let me know. Hopefully we find it.”
Harden’s game is both definitive and antithetical for the modern NBA, a left-handed wizard with the ball who lures in defenders, draws absurd foul calls, buries absurdly deep 3-pointers and wiggles his way into the lane with opponents seemingly glued to his hip. And he still makes it work, because only he can do what he does. Usually to the cheers of Rockets fans and to the maddening, hair-pulling, expletive-inducing ire of those who watch, always waiting for him to slip up.
It doesn’t happen often. Harden is typically in control, which makes the first-round showdown with the Jazz that much more enticing. A defense-first, share-the-ball-at-all-times group in the Jazz versus the MVP who, at times, tucks the ball into his elbow alone atop the 3-point line, waiting for a weakness to expose itself.
“A lot of times, he gets to his comfort zone,” said Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. “You could say you can take him out of his comfort zone, but it’s easy to say. He’s done it on every team. For us, it’s making it tough on him, finding ways to break the rhythm, and he has counters to that, so we’ve got to be able to be ready for those.”
To Mitchell’s point about rhythm, when dealing with Harden, it’s about not getting stuck in the avalanche of points that the Houston superstar can generate to flip a game on its head in a matter of minutes. Harden averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game in the regular season. There weren’t many teams that were able to handcuff Harden, but the best team in the league this year did a swell job of making the guy who makes every opposing team uncomfortable feel his own wrath.
The Milwaukee Bucks held Harden to 23 points on 9-of-26 shooting when the Rockets visited Milwaukee this season. They did it by shadowing Harden and trying to always force him right, meaning some players stood straight up to this right knowing that a big down low was waiting to help should Harden use his deceptive speed to burst by. The Bucks often picked Harden up in a full-court press, too, not giving him any sort of breather on any part of the court. Every defender had their hands up, doing their best to block his vision.
Here’s the thing: Only one team in the league has Giannis Antetokounmpo. It ain’t the Jazz.
The Jazz have implored that sort of defensive look at times this year with point guard Ricky Rubio, who could start off as the primary defender on Harden, waiting for Gobert to be in vicinity to help out. Rubio was not available in last year’s Western Conference semifinal series with the Rockets when Houston beat the Jazz in five games. Harden averaged 28 points, 7.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds a game in that series. After the season ended, Mitchell vowed to go back and study every regular season and postseason game from a year ago to learn entering his sophomore season.
What did he glean from that Houston series in 2018?
“This year James is on a completely different level,” said Mitchell. “What he’s doing this year is 10 times better than what he had last year.”
So, there you go.
Houston isn’t the exact same team as it was a year ago, but it still has the MVP.
“There are a lot of things about their team that are different,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “Obviously who they are still is James, and there’s no better player in the league obviously. That’s something that doesn’t need to be discussed or debated.”
So get ready, Jazz fans. You know what’s coming. Jab steps, step-back 3s, controversial foul calls, flailing arms, otherworldly anticipation — the best, most unique offensive player in basketball. He’s very much back in the picture. So get used to it for the next week or so. Or at least try to.
All Times Mountain
Game 1 • Sunday at Houston, 7:30 p.m.
TV: ATTSN, TNT
Game 2 • Wednesday at Houston, 7:30 p.m.
TV: ATTSN, TNT
Game 3 • Saturday at Vivint Arena, 8:30 p.m.
TV: ATTSN, ESPN
Game 4 • Monday at Vivint Arena, 8:30 p.m.
TV: ATTSN, TNT
Game 5 • April 24 at Houston, TBD*
Game 6 • April 26 at Vivint Arena, TBD*
Game 7 • April 28 at Houston, TBD*
* If necessary