You often see “no-look passes” that aren’t really no-look passes. This is a real no-look pass by James Harden.
In real time, this made me fall out of my chair. Slow it down, and it gets better. This is a master craftsman at work.
He sees the coverage early
Harden begins his backdown with a single dribble designed to reveal the Blazers’ coverage plans. He has no intention of actually attacking with it, but he probes just enough to discover that C.J. McCollum and Evan Turner plan to help way off their men. Note McCollum’s position in particular.
That single dribble seems pointless at first glance, but it serves the same function as a wide receiver going in motion. Harden now knows how the other four Blazers will try to help.
The easy move would be to drive at McCollum and kick out to Eric Gordon for an open three, but Harden knows the Blazers will expect him to do that. So, he waits.
And he gets to his spot slowly instead.
Rather than dashing in, Harden allows the play to develop. Gordon sets a backscreen on Maurice Harkless, who is guarding Ryan Anderson. The easy play now is to skip a cross-court pass to Anderson for three.
But Harden knows the Blazers will expect him to do that. Instead, he patiently backs Damian Lillard into the middle of the lane to force the entire team to collapse onto him.
Harden knows the Blazers will do this because he saw McCollum cheat into the middle after one non-threatening dribble. He knows that drawing four defenders to him will open someone else up.
But he also knows the Blazers know this. That sets up the masterful no-look pass
Focus on Evan Turner for a second. With Harden now in the middle and Mason Plumlee helping himself, it is Turner’s job to cover two players at once. If you watch his positioning very closely, he is anticipating that Harden will make the obvious pass to Trevor Ariza in the corner. By making it seem like that pass is open, Turner can then pick it off or deflect it.
But Harden knows the Blazers and Turner will expect him to do that. That’s why he stares right at Ariza to fool Turner into jumping the route.
And that opens up the pass to Clint Capela
But this is still a tough pass
That’s because Plumlee is lurking and it’s very hard to put the right kind of touch on a lob pass even when looking. Harden isn’t looking and must deliver the pass across his body and over Plumlee, but not too far over Plumlee so Capela can’t catch it.
This is perfect.
This is Game Theory at its finest
With every step, Harden used the Blazers’ expectations against them. Portland’s defense opened up passes they expected Harden to make, whether it was to Gordon, Anderson, or Ariza. The Blazers figured that Harden would oblige and were ready to scramble to deal with those decisions.
Instead, Harden, knowing that Portland was anticipating him making those passes, feigned them and delivered a lob the Blazers never thought would open up. He immediately thought on a higher plane than the Blazers ever could.
And he processed all of this two seconds.
All while putting the perfect amount of touch on the lob to Capela.
This is why Harden is a basketball savant.