Houston • Jazz coach Quin Snyder attributes Houston Rockets guard James Harden’s ability to read, anticipate and then take advantage of opposing to defenses to some sort of artificial intelligence.
Harden’s own coach, Mike D’Antoni thinks Snyder could be on to something. D’Antoni has witnessed the greatness of Harden for years now, but even he admits this season that Harden’s ability to break down opponents has gone up another level or two.
That much was obvious Wednesday night as Harden used a blistering 17-point first quarter to ignite a triple-double performance to help lift the Rockets to a 118-98 win over the Jazz in Game 2 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series. Harden finished with 32 points and a playoff career-high 13 rebounds to go along with 10 assists for the third triple-double of his playoff career.
“I’ve talked about it all year, the year he is having and what he did that first quarter was ridiculous,” said D’Antoni, whose team took a commanding 2-0 series lead as the series now heads to Salt Lake City. “When he gets it rolling nobody is better.”
And the Jazz certainly had no answers for the second straight playoff game as Harden left Ricky Rubio and anyone else attempting to guard him on the perimeter stumbling on his step-back 3-pointers. And when he was knocking shots down from behind the arc, he was punishing the Jazz with penetration drives that often ended up with a pass inside to Clint Capela when the help defense came early.
Harden was spectacular in the series opener but he was even better — from the start — Wednesday night.
“Maybe he got up a couple of more 3s on that step back than he did the last time,” D’Antoni said. “He just reads what they give him. He was shooting the ball so well in the first and I think he went to his step back a couple of more times. He is just kind of deals with what he has got. He just figures out whatever way. He’s a machine. He just scores.”
Harden continued his assault from Game 1 on the Jazz defense in the first half Wednesday night. He was well on his way to a triple double after the first two quarters with 25 points, seven assists and seven rebounds to help lead the Rockets to a commanding 70-44 halftime lead.
Just as Harden had done Sunday, he continued to take advantage of the Jazz’s defense. When Rudy Gobert left early to help on Harden’s drives, he found Capela alone for easy points in the paint during the first half.
Prior to Wednesday night’s game, Snyder discussed how Harden’s ability to see the entire floor and his knack for anticipating a defenders movements makes him tough to defend. Harden’s floor awareness was on display from the start as he seemed several steps ahead of the Jazz defenders.
“The way he plays, there is an artistic nature to it,” Snyder said. “He reacts to different things on the court. He puts the ball in different locations that he wants, he understands spacing. He can anticipate the rotations.”