Defending James Harden may be the most difficult singular task there is in today’s NBA.
He’s a leading candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. He leads the league with 31.5 points per game. He’s averaging nine assists and five rebounds per game for a Houston Rockets team that has won 12 consecutive games heading into Monday night’s meeting with the Jazz. He leads the NBA in scoring, and he’s second in assists.
But, if you can believe it, those gaudy statistics may not be his most impressive — or frustrating — attribute.
Harden has been in the league for eight seasons. During that time, nobody has been able to keep him from the free-throw line. So, here’s the question: How do you defend James Harden without fouling him?
“I don’t know,” Utah forward Derrick Favors said. “Nobody has been able to figure that out, yet.”
Harden is averaging 10.1 free throws per game this season, which leads the NBA by a good margin. Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo is second in the league at nine attempts per game. By comparison, Rudy Gobert leads the Jazz in free-throw attempts. He averages five per game.
Harden’s ability to get to the line makes him almost unguardable. He shoots 38 percent from 3-point range. He puts pressure on defenses by getting into the lane, and when he gets there he knows how to create contact. Most important, he makes 87 percent of his free throws and he does so while putting opponents in foul trouble.
“That’s a full-on philosophical question and it’s not an easy one to answer,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of the Rockets’ guard. “First, you can’t reach. He’s so good at recognizing an advantage. You have to be disciplined and show your hands as best as possible. He’s able to find contact in a legal way, because he’s so strong and skilled. There are no holes in his game. There’s nothing he’s not capable of doing.”
During past matchups against Houston, the Jazz have typically put an emphasis on defending Harden with their hands out. But when he drives, defensive instinct takes over. And when Jazz defenders put their hands on Harden, he’s adept at seeking contact and getting a call.
In three games against the Jazz this season, Harden has shot 31 free throws, including 11-of-12 in his 56-point explosion against the Jazz in November. Harden is averaging 37 points per game against the Jazz this season. Not surprisingly, Houston has won all three contests.
“There’s a reason they are the best team in the NBA,” Favors said. “It’s a tough team to defend. They put you through a lot of pick and rolls. They have a lot of shooters, and Harden is tough to defend.”
Rubio remembers Fegan
On Sunday, longtime prominent NBA agent Dan Fegan was tragically killed in a car accident in Colorado.
Among many names, Fegan represented current Utah Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio. His agency for a time also represented Rodney Hood, whom the Jazz recently traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Rubio said Fegan was more than an agent. He called him a friend, when he reflected on his memory Monday morning.
“He was the one who brought me here to the NBA,” Rubio said. “I remember having a meeting with him in Barcelona and he was so kind to me and my family. He was one of the best in the business.”
Comings and goings
The Jazz played their third consecutive game without Raul Neto on Monday night. Houston played without Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, Brandon Wright and Eric Gordon.