Treveon Graham sifted through more film than usual in the days leading up to Brooklyn’s Jan. 16 matchup against the Houston Rockets. Graham, who signed with the Nets to be a defensive stopper, knew he would be tasked with an impossible situation: guarding James Harden, the league’s reigning MVP currently in the middle of an even better encore season.
Defending Harden is like studying your entire life for an exam, only to find out on the day of that the test is in Mandarin.
“It’s kind of forgetting everything you know about how to defend someone,” Graham tells SB Nation. “He kind of has his own category of how to guard him.”
That night, Harden dropped 58 points on Brooklyn. But as tough as it is for a prideful defender, Graham knew focusing on that massive number was only going to make him feel worse.
“You’ve gotta look at how hard it was for him to get those points,” he admits. “And that’s basically the most you can do with trying to check him.”
Rule No. 1 of stopping Harden is simple: there is no stopping Harden. Checking the league’s most dangerous scorer is like walking into Fight Club. You’re liable to get your ass — or ankles — handed to you, much like the Clippers’ Wesley Johnson and Denver’s Jamal Murray did in famous highlights gone viral. You just have to accept it.
Harden’s bag of basketball tricks is deeper than the Mariana Trench. He’s a rocket-powered Swiss Army knife, an offensive mastermind with a scoring package that leaves defenders clueless.
“Every single season, he adds two things to his game,” says Pacers veteran shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who has warred with Harden for half a decade. “Not just one.”
Players across the NBA have tried everything, from playing defense without their hands to standing on one side of his body. On ESPN, Hall of Fame defender Scottie Pippen said that “you have to start guarding James Harden getting out of his car, going into the arena.” He was joking, but his subsequent checklist of everything he’d do to stop Harden from offensive domination took five minutes to list out.
“You see what he does,” Matthews tells SB Nation. “That’s what makes him great. He does what he does even though you know it’s coming.”
So how do you guard the man who averaged 43.6 points in January, scored 61 at Madison Square Garden and rattled off the second-longest streak of 30-point games in NBA history?
Most opponents have their dos and do nots. Matthews, who was the primary defender on Harden during the Portland Trail Blazers’ six-game first-round series win in 2014, has two cardinal sins: Don’t reach, and don’t bite on the pump fake.
“Make him catch the ball a little further out. Be more active with your hands. Try not to let him get in a rhythm,” Matthews says. “It’s tricky with reaching because you don’t wanna let him get in rhythm. So it’s more like don’t get caught reaching.”
Graham has three: Don’t let him rock you to sleep, don’t foul him on threes, and don’t get too down on yourself.
“If he’s rocking you to sleep, you’ve gotta stay on your toes,” he says. “You can’t fall asleep, because if you do, you’re gonna get everyone else on your team in foul trouble.”
Harden’s incredible foul-drawing ability makes that task even harder.
“You already know when he goes to the rim, 99 percent of the time, he’s gonna put the ball out so he can draw that foul,” Graham says. “On any other player, when he goes to the rim, you might want to body him — but on [Harden], you bodying him draws that foul.”
Combine those challenge with all of Harden’s moves — the drives, the stepback jumper, the passing, and much more — and it’s clear taking an analytical approach to the task of stopping Harden isn’t sufficient.
The best strategy, then, is to take the few small victories you do get.
“Make it hard, I guess?”
That was Josh Okogie’s answer when asked how he planned to prevent Harden from dancing all over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 13.
“You’ve got to know who you’re playing against,” he continues. “You gotta know what the person you’re guarding likes to do. You’ve gotta know them almost better than they know themselves.”
Harden had scored 30 points in 30 consecutive outings before the game against Minnesota. This time, he did 12 better, running up 42 points with eight made threes on the night. But it took him 34 shots to get there, and his Rockets lost to a non-playoff Timberwolves team by 10.
Better yet, it was Okogie, a rookie, who left with the highlight of the night: a lock-down defensive possession on Harden resulting in the most surprising swat of the season.
“After the game, people are saying that’s the craziest block they’ve ever seen,” Okogie laughs. “I’m here thinking I had a good game other than the block.”
It wasn’t just the block that got the arena buzzing, it was the white-on-rice defense Okogie played on Harden as the shot clock wound down. When Harden signaled for a double screen, Okogie flashed in front of it, then pushed P.J. Tucker away from the action.
He didn’t allow Harden to get the switch onto the bigger Taj Gibson.
Heeding Graham’s lesson, Okogie didn’t let Harden lull him to sleep. When Harden attacked, Okogie matched him stride for stride without losing his footing.
Okogie timed his reach, waiting for Harden to show the ball when he brought it behind his back.
By then, there were fewer than two seconds left on the clock. There were only but so many moves Harden could have done.
“The biggest thing that helped me on that play was that I knew the shot clock was winding down and I knew that he had to create some space to get a shot off,” Okogie says. “I knew, obviously, the step-back is one of his go-to moves and I kind of just guessed and I was right.”
That wasn’t Okogie’s only defensive highlight. He stole the ball from Harden not once, but twice: one time in transition, another on an isolation.
Josh Okogie is all over James Harden right now, strip and a block on these two possessions pic.twitter.com/YGz3pVcpLy— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 14, 2019
“He was motivated for that game, but more than anything, it’s about being smart,” veteran wing-stopper teammate Luol Deng says. “I tell him that in this league, you’ve got to know what everyone does. You’ve got to know their tendencies. A guy’s gonna get you once. They can’t get you twice in a row. And if he does, it’s got to be a great shot. He can’t just get you.”
One can watch Harden film for weeks in slow motion, but that won’t prepare anyone for the real thing. Even on a good defensive day, Harden will still go off for 30 or 40 points. Making it as tough as possible sometimes isn’t good enough.
Win a couple memorable possessions, though, and what happened on the others doesn’t matter. That’s the mental battle Okogie ultimately won.
In a way, he was following in Graham’s footsteps. Graham may have been the primary defender on the night Harden dropped 58 on the Nets, but Brooklyn’s stopper can say he came up big when it mattered most.
With the game tied on the final possession of regulation, Graham cut off Harden’s lane to the basket before contesting a step-back three without fouling.
This one at the end of regulation? pic.twitter.com/uAkmTkc7tE— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) January 18, 2019
Later in overtime, Graham came up with a key stop in overtime, contesting a shot that would have put the Rockets up seven with two minutes go.
Not sure this is the exact stop I'm looking for but it's certainly one of them pic.twitter.com/61PL98ELLD— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) January 17, 2019
Brooklyn went on to win, rallying in large part because Graham embraced the challenge despite Harden scoring on him time and time again.
Yes, Harden hung 58 on the Nets and 42 on the Wolves, but both were Rockets losses. As long as that happens, Harden’s defenders can focus on the few times they actually stopped him instead of the many times he lit them up.
“You don’t have anything to lose,” Okogie says. “If he gets 30, it’s because he was supposed to get 30.”