James Harden is one of the greatest offensive players to ever grace the hardwood. That statement is indisputable.
However, for a long time, the rub on Harden has been that while he is a prolific offensive force, he leaves a lot to be desired on the other end of the floor.
To their credit, his naysayers have a point. For most of his career, Harden has struggled to leave a positive mark on that end of the floor. Even early in last night’s game against the Indiana Pacers, he demonstrated one of his signature transition malfunctions.
Harden turns the ball over after a miscommunication with Montrezl Harrell. The Pacers, true to their name, push the pace, and we get a 2-on-1 sequence featuring Harden as the lone defender back.
These situations are never optimal. The best a defender can do is stay close enough to both players to be able to make a play on the ball if necessary. But at the very least, you need to drop back and protect the paint from layups/dunks (the most high-value shots outside of free throws).
Harden does neither, and what follows is an easy dunk and this priceless reaction:
Harden’s reputation led to him becoming the target of the Pacers’ crunchtime mismatch hunting. Down the stretch, Indiana would have other guards set ballscreens to get Tyrese Haliburton matched up with Harden (teams usually switch when the screen involves like-sized players), or give the ball to rookie Benedict Mathurin (Harden’s primary assignment at the time).
The outcome of their strategic maneuvers went like this:
We know what you’re thinking. No, your eyes did not deceive you. In the following reel, you observed: a steal that led to the overtime-inducing putback by Tobias Harris, a swipe down that prevented Indiana from taking a two-possession lead in the fifth quarter, and the game-saving, that’s right, game-saving block to give the Philadelphia 76ers a 129-126 win without Joel Embiid.
Laugh all you want about his album of Shaqtin’ a Fool hits, but when it matters most, Harden showed us he really can play defense.