Houston Rockets star James Harden suffered through a nightmare Game 3 against the Golden State Warriors, shooting just 3-of-16 overall and 1-of-5 from three in a 115-80 loss. But he bounced back in the biggest possible way in Game 4, recording a playoff career-high 45 points in a 128-115 victory to help the Rockets stave off elimination.
This was a quintessential Harden performance. Seventeen of his 22 shots came at either the rim or from three, and he took 13 free throws. Overall, Harden shot 13-of-22 from the field and a scorching hot 7-of-11 from long distance. Those seven three-pointers were more than he had hit in the previous three games of the series combined (five), and his 11 attempts were three less than he attempted in those previous three games. Only four of his points came from the mid-range area.
Harden has gotten away from Morey Ball a bit in the postseason, especially in the first three games of this series, when he only took 14 threes and 14 shots at the rim. He was making those shots in Games 1 and 2, but the mean regressed in Game 3.
Over half of Harden's shots in Games 1-3 came from the non-restricted area paint and mid-range, two inefficient areas. Just over a quarter of his shots in the regular season came from those spots, but that number is at about 40 percent in the postseason. Defenses have done a better job keeping him out of his preferred spots.
It hasn't mattered much because Harden has adapted, but Game 3 against the Warriors was his worst performance of the playoffs. After Harden had his way with Klay Thompson in the first two games of the series, Golden State stuck the bigger Harrison Barnes on the MVP runner-up to start the game and he wasn't able to find a rhythm. Barnes guarded Harden out past the three-point line in an effort to deny the ball and Houston didn't do much to get him free. Andre Iguodala also drew the Harden assignment, and the results weren't much different.
Barnes again started on Harden in Game 4, but the results changed. The Rockets guard missed a few chippies at the outset of the game even as Houston came bursting out of the gate, but started to find a rhythm and eventually got going in the second half, scoring 33 of his 45 points.
The Rockets did a much better job freeing Harden for good looks in the second half, using a lot of screens that allowed him to get the ball in good spots:
Jason Terry ran a dribble hand-off with Harden and screened Barnes as the hand-off was made. Shaun Livingston was caught sleeping on the play, allowing Harden to blow by for a layup.
On this next play, a simple high pick and roll with Harden and Dwight Howard turned into an open three:
Thompson was caught on the screen and Festus Ezeli sat back, so Harden pulled right up into the three instead of trying to force the ball into the paint.
Here's another high pick and roll at the end of the third quarter that resulted in a Harden layup:
Having learned from Ezeli's mistake, Draymond Green hedged harder to take away the three and forced Harden right. But that didn't work either. Harden aggressively blew by Green, and with no help on the back line, Harden was able to switch back over to his left to finish the layup.
At this point, Harden was fully in a groove. He hit some crazy three-pointers in the fourth quarter to help seal the deal and force a Game 5.
Harden is a dangerous isolation scorer, but he becomes even more difficult to defend when he's aggressive and using screens effectively. The Rockets' big men helped him out by setting some of these screens well past the three-point line. This gave Harden the opportunity to either pull up beyond the arc if the defender sagged back or build up a head of steam driving to the basket if the defender hedged.
We saw how effective Harden was attacking in pick and roll in Game 4, so expect to see more of the same in Game 5. The Warriors will surely try to get the ball out of his hands more and not let him get to his preferred spots on the floor, but that's easier said than done.