Houston • James Harden was asked a question: How do you break down a defense as good as Utah’s?
How does an elephant crack a nut? It steps on it. The force will be too much to bear.
Harden, the 28-year-old Rockets star reaching the height of his offensive prowess, has a similar impact on NBA defenses. When he’s at his best, there’s little that can be done — Harden doesn’t have to change his game for anyone.
“I mean, for the most part,” he said, “I’m going to do what I do.”
In Game 1, Harden illustrated how hard what he does is to guard in a 110-96 Rockets victory. He hoisted stepback 3s. He managed to get inside steps to the rim against Rudy Gobert. He dribbled in isolation enough times to make the crowd dizzy.
In all, the most lethal scorer in the NBA was 12-for-26 shooting for 41 points. It would’ve been difficult to make it look any easier.
“He’s a special player,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “It’s hard to give him credit to all the things he does. He impacts the game in so many ways, you have to try to make it harder for him in so many facets, and it requires your whole team to guard him because he’s so capable of finding any weakness in a given situation.”
Harden’s isolation possessions are like one-move chess matches. If a defender steps too close, he can glide by to the rim. If a defender leaves too much space, he can hit a long shot without being contested. If a defender lurches, he can lean in to draw a foul (he made 10 of his 11 free throws Sunday).
The difference between Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook is the cast around him is equally lethal, and Harden knows how to use them. He also had seven assists Sunday and while the ball can stick in Harden’s hands on certain possessions, on others, the Rockets can cycle around to create mismatches.
“We watch film and we figure out how we can create threes and create oppotunities for each other,” Harden said. “And we just go out there and play our butts off — pretty simple.”
If there’s a bright spot for the Jazz, it may be that Harden’s 3-point shooting (7 for 12) might not be sustainable. There were defensive possessions where Royce O’Neale was able to doggedly follow him as he tried to dribble his way past. Other possessions against Gobert and Derrick Favors in isolation didn’t go so well for Utah — the Jazz will look to limit them.
But the problem is bigger than Harden: Four other Rockets had 15 points or more, and any one of them — from Chris Paul, to P.J. Tucker to Clint Capela — can get hot. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have torched the Jazz before.
Harden himself isn’t merely a 3-point shooter. He’ll find ways to hurt defenses even when his shooting is off.
That’s just who he is.