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The Rockets’ iso-ball can work against the Warriors, if it doesn’t run James Harden into the ground

Houston’s best play is Harden cooking an overmatched defender. He just can’t do it every single possession.

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Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets - Game One Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

HOUSTON — The lowest moment in James Harden’s career came about a year ago. Down 3-2 and headed into an elimination Game 6, facing the San Antonio Spurs without Kawhi Leonard, Harden — and his season as the MVP runner-up — sputtered, coughed, and died.

Everyone has their own take on Harden’s 10-point, 11-shot performance in that game. You’re certainly entitled to believe it was an indictment on him, or his playing style, or his mental toughness, or whatever else. The Rockets know Harden best, and they saw one thing: an exhausted Harden, physically beaten down by doing everything for the team that season.

The single star life is lonely, so general manager Daryl Morey’s solution was Chris Paul, acquired last offseason through trade. Harden’s workload fell by about 13 touches per game, per the NBA’s Second Spectrum data. The Rockets won 65 games, and secured home court advantage against the Golden State Warriors, a team that Morey admitted he is “obsessed” with beating earlier this year.

Harden was sensational in Game 1 — 41 points, seven assists, and 58 percent shooting with only four turnovers — but his most eye-popping stat was his minutes, only 35 in a 119-106 defeat. If Harden was that good, why didn’t, or couldn’t, he play more in the most important game all season?

Yes, there was an injury scare late in the first quarter, and head coach Mike D’Antoni said he considered bringing him back to start the fourth, instead of gambling for fresher legs. Harden told reporters Tuesday he wasn’t tired during Game 1, and it’s impossible for us to know for sure. There were moments were he looked gassed, at least.

Asked if he would play more, Harden replied: “Hope so.” Then: “I’ll probably play 48 [minutes] if I have to.”

There has been ample backlash to Houston’s game plan in Game 1. “The noise,” as D’Antoni called it, has mostly critiqued whether the Rockets can possibly beat a team like the Warriors playing so much one-on-one. D’Antoni pushed back harshly against that idea.

“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, they iso! That’s all they do.’ No, it isn’t,” D’Antoni said. “That’s what we do best. We scored like 60 percent of the time on it. It’s like, no, really? Like, ‘Oh, they don’t pass. Everybody stands.’ Really? Have you watched us for 82 games? That’s what we do. We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it.”

Note the two things that D’Antoni said: that isolation is what the Rockets do best, and it’s not the only thing they do. There are adjustments that can be made without scrapping the Rockets’ identity.

But when making those adjustments, D’Antoni and the Rockets must really answer a different question: What are the physical limitations to playing iso-ball, and how much can Harden — and to a lesser extent, Paul — really be expected to do it?

The Rockets think plenty about Harden’s workload behind the scenes, a Houston executive told me Tuesday. But they think about his workload in context of their entire philosophy, and that’s important to understand.

Houston’s iso-ball — and Golden State enabling it by constant switching — is inherently more predictable and more repeatable than your average modern offense playing against an average modern defense. Switching eliminates much of the help defense you see in today’s league, which, in turn, makes offense much less predicated on “what the defense gives you,” as the cliche goes. In iso-ball, the Rockets offense wants exactly what the Warriors defense is giving them, over and over again.

What Houston wants is James Harden isolating on Stephen Curry or Kevon Looney. For stretches in Game 1, they patiently sought that out, and it paid off with the Harden scoring explosion. Via Second Spectrum, Harden averaged 7.9 seconds per touch, 7.5 dribbles per touch, and had 73 total touches.

Harden’s isolations are great for Houston, but they did have problems when Harden couldn’t isolate. When it was Eric Gordon doing it one on one, or when P.J. Tucker attempted to bail out a failing possession late in the shot clock, the Rockets looked much more impotent.

In a vacuum, the Rockets could have Harden isolate every single possession of every single minute that he’s on the floor. They could get those favorable matchups every time.

But they can’t, not physically, because there are limitations to how much you can ask one player to do everything, even if that player has a sidekick.

The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss wrote this in a story published Tuesday, which takes the opposite perspective on a similar idea:

That’s why dribbling is the enemy of Kerrism. We don’t often talk about the pros and cons of dribbling. Obviously, dribbling is useful and fun to watch. LeBron isn’t LeBron without a point guard-level handle. There’s a downside to dribbling, though, one beyond its slowness relative to a pass: It’s exhausting.

A Rockets executive told me Harden’s workload is like a lineman’s in American football. Linemen on either side of the ball don’t move much — probably 10 yards on each play at most, way less than a receiver or defensive back. But like Harden bursting past a defender, there is an enormous physical toll on what they do, because every meaningful movement in that setting requires maximum effort.

Defensive linemen play by committee, so an offensive lineman is an even more apt comparison. They famously can “take plays off” even while remaining in the game if they know the running back isn’t going to their side. Harden standing near half-court while Gordon or Paul tries to beat his own man feels similar.

If fatigue could be switched off like an NBA 2K game, then Harden would take on his mismatched defender every single possession. The Rockets would score 150 points, they’d win the game, and no one could complain.

But they can’t. And that, more than the Warriors’ elite defense, is the dilemma they must solve.

The Rockets believe they have answers, and D’Antoni essentially gave away the improved gameplan on Tuesday.

“We got to get transition, we gotta get Trevor [Ariza] and those guys shots, we gotta get the ball moved up a little bit quicker,” he said.

A quicker pace and more running, oddly enough, should help Harden and the Rockets feel less tired. More off-ball action early in the shot clock could create good looks, meaning Harden’s isolating becomes the ultimate bailout opportunity rather than the only feasible plan every time down.

Isolating Harden is still an enormous part of Houston’s team, and don’t think for a second they’re going away from it. But getting Harden’s teammates good shots while he’s on the floor is imperative, so that he’ll still have the energy to cook mismatched defenders at his leisure when he needs to. (Also: hold his own defensively, which he did not enough in Game 1.)

A Harden isolation is Houston’s best play. The Rockets must maximize their offense not only to allow him as many chances as physically possible, but also to survive when he can’t.

Otherwise, Harden’s exhaustion or the team’s failures outside of him will doom them again.