James Harden's decision making on full display as the MVP frontrunner slices up Bulls

James Harden's decision making on full display as the MVP frontrunner slices up Bulls

As the Houston Rockets were putting the finishing touches on a rout of the Bulls, James Harden took a baseball pass from Patrick Beverley and had a clear path to the basket. Instead, the MVP frontrunner took one dribble and flipped the ball to a streaking Clint Capela, who flushed it home.

It was a situation Harden found himself in much of Friday night. The man who has the ball in his hands more than any player in the league was tasked with plenty of decision making. And as he's done the entire year - in his first season playing point guard - Harden made all the right calls as the Rockets picked up a 115-94 road victory.

Harden didn't light up the box score against a Bulls defense limited to Jimmy Butler and Jimmy Butler only as potential stoppers. He wasn't able to match the 42 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists he posted in Houston's victory over the Bulls last month. And he was more methodical than flashy, carving his way through the Bulls defense for 19 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists, his 33rd double-double.

But after an ugly start in which he committed five turnovers in his first 13 minutes - and watched the undermanned Bulls take a surprising 13-point lead - Harden was as solid as he could have been. Though just about every Rocket contributed to it, Harden's pacing of the Houston offense allowed for seamless transition buckets, 3-pointers and open layups off pick-and-roll sets. The end result was an unimaginable 72-28 run spanning the end of the first quarter to the end of the third quarter.

In that span Harden 15 points, six rebounds, eight assists and was a +30. He also committed just one turnover in the final 20 minutes of action, and his 13 assists created 32 points for the Rockets.

"James and I have pretty good chemistry. I know when he wants me to come set a screen or when he’s going to isolate or go to the basket on his own," said Ryan Anderson, who led the Rockets with 21 points and six 3-pointers. "We’re pretty much ready and prepared to spread the court around him and give him space to work and distribute. And for us we just want to make the best decisions."

Harden's ability to know when the flow of the game calls for him and his 29.1 points per contest to take over, or when his league-leading 11.2 assists need to help others involved, was on full display.

Late in the second quarter, after Dwyane Wade converted a three-point play to give the Bulls a one-point lead, Harden buried a pair of triples on successive possesions, with the latter becoming a four-point play after he baited Michael Carter-Williams into a foul.

Harden stayed aggressive in the third quarter, but with the Bulls keying in on him he became D'Antoni's distributor. He handed out five assists in various manners. First he found Capela on a pick-and-roll for an alley-oop dunk. Twice Anderson popped out off screens and buried triples. Later Harden drove and kicked to a wide-open Trevor Ariza (19 points), and he finished the quarter with a dart to Nene at the foul line for a 17-foot jumper.

"That’s probably his thing that we talk more about is him staying right in the middle in the sense of how much you score and how much you help the team," D'Antoni said. "You can’t do both, and it’s a fine line of some days it’s too much team and some days it’s too much 1-on-1. So he’s trying to stay right on that road in the middle where that’s how we win."

Friday he was clearly a distributor, as a sub-par Bulls defense struggled to keep up. Harden's 19 points were the second fewest he had scored in a month, and he only made five trips to the free-throw line, far less than the 11.0 attempts he averages per game. He picked and choosed his spots to score, and there weren't too many high-pressure situations for him to make decisions on in the blowout.

But it was yet another opportunity for him to build his skills and grow as a point guard. D'Antoni opted to make Harden the primary ball handler and point guard when he took over this summer. He stressed to Harden the importance of not worrying about turnovers - Harden leads the league with 6.8 turnovers per game - because of how often the Rockets wanted the ball in his hands.

Harden's made good on that. His usage rate is second only to Russell Westbrook. He leads the league in both assists per game and passes per game, showing that while he's finding open shooters he's also keeping the offense moving.

"You don’t really know how difficult it is to be the point guard until you’re really in it," he said. "I don’t really worry about the turnovers. I just go out there and try to make the right play and get everyone involved and play my game."

It's working for the Rockets, who are comfortably sitting in the No. 3 spot in the West. Already touting wins over the two teams ahead of them in the standings in Golden State and San Antonio, there's a belief their NBA-record 3-point shooting could help propel them to the Finals for the first time in two decades.

Harden has become one of the game's best passers, but in reality it's more fair to say he's one of the best decision makers. D'Antonio admitted that Harden's innate talent has made the transition a smooth one, and on Friday night it resulted in their 45th victory of the season as the playoffs near.

"James is also a guy that can (pass) and know when the right time for him to score is, too," Anderson said. "We trust his decision making, and he's just a superior player. What he’s doing, I’ve never played with anybody like that. I don’t know that there’s been many guys like that."

Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

USA Today

Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Just over midway through the third quarter Wednesday night, Kris Dunn cleanly picked Derrick Rose’s pocket for a steal.

“I love getting steals. That’s been my game since high school. That’s what I do. I take pride in that,” Dunn said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I think my teammates know, the coaches know, the other teams know defense is what I do. And I try to inspire that in others.”

With 17 Pistons’ turnovers, the Bulls have now forced 15 or more turnovers in all 15 games this season.

The last time they did this---in 1980---nobody on the current roster was born. Jim Boylen was in high school in Grand Rapids, Mich. No NBA team has opened a season in similar fashion since the 76ers did in 2004, per Elias Sports Bureau.

The Bulls lead the NBA in overall steals and rank second behind Friday’s opponent, the Heat, in steals per game. Dunn ranks third behind league leader Jimmy Butler, in town Friday, and Ben Simmons with 2.13 steals per game.

The Bulls also lead the NBA in forced turnovers per game at 18.8 and points off turnovers.

“I think our defense is built to force turnovers, the system that we run,” Dunn said. “We’re blitzing guys, trying to get the ball out of their hands. You have to make them make a read. Our defense is built so that after we blitz, we have a triangle (of defenders) behind. If they make a mistake in the read, it often leads to a turnover. We have a lot of good defenders on this team who can create turnovers.”

Shaq Harrison’s emergency starter status now that both Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are on the shelf aids in this department. He led the NBA in steals-per-minute last season and posted three versus the Pistons. Hutchison is doubtful for Friday’s game against the Heat.

“I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Harrison said of getting steals. “Every coach I’ve played for has been a defensive-minded coach and wants me to get into people. It’s been embedded into my mind to get steals and deflections and pick guys up to play hard 100 percent of the time.

“I think defense and that mentality is 90 percent toughness and heart and then 10 percent skill. Anybody can do it at this level if you truly put your mind to it.”

Despite their penchant for steals and forcing turnovers, the Bulls rank 14th in defensive rating. That’s middle-of-the-pack stuff, although it’s trending upward over the last five games. And it’s reflective of their poor defensive rebounding, occasionally poor defensive transition and inability to limit dribble penetration.

In detailing his defensive philosophy, coach Jim Boylen cited those three areas as need for improvement. That’s borne out in the Bulls allowing too many shots at the rim. What’s wild is they lead the league in offensive attempts within 5 feet but also allow the second-most in the league.

“We do not teach to steal the ball. I’m not a big out-of-position-to-steal-the-ball guy,” Boylen said. “What we have coached hard---and I guess well at times---is hand position, body position and doing your work early. I think that has put us in position sometimes to knock some balls loose or pick a couple off. But I’m not big on getting out of position to try to get a steal. It’s not who I am. It’s not who we want to be.”

Dunn said he sees “no downside” to the Bulls’ defensive’ scheme as long as it’s played with energy and communication. The Bulls have had trouble making quick and proper rotations if they don’t force a turnover, although that area too has improved over the last eight games.

The Bulls rank ninth in defensive rating over their last eight games.

“I give our guys credit,” Boylen said. “They’ve really bought into what our defense looks like now. Early, we struggled to get to the corner, to adjust and shift. I think there’s a familiarity now. There’s a learning curve in every defensive situation. I also think there’s defensive chemistry. And I think we can still grow.

“My assistant coaches have done a great job of sticking to what we believe in. We’ve coached basically the same thing since Day One. I feel we have a foundation. We need to be more consistent and play better. But we’re coaching to a system.”

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Luol Deng is honored in win over Pistons


Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Luol Deng is honored in win over Pistons

On this edition of Bulls Outsiders, Matt Peck, John Sabine and David Watson react to the Bulls 109-89 win over the Pistons.

1:00 - Reaction to the win over Detroit

3:25 - Viewer comment on Bulls still having hope in the Eastern Conference

4:30 - Did Lauri Markkanen finally break out of his slump?

6:30 - Viewer comment on Zach LaVine and if he still fits

8:15 - Shaq Harrison balls out starting at SF

9:30 - Big Dave does Shaq highlites

11:50 - Viewer comment on James Harden or Luka Doncic?

13:30 - Viewer question on who has bigger hands- Will Perdue or Kendall Gill?

15:15 - Bulls honor Luol Deng and 2009 Bulls team

18:05 - Viewer comment on greater Bull- Joakim Noah or Deng?

21:00 - Viewer comment on Otto Porter Jr.’s return

23:30 - Reacting to Derrick Rose’s comments about load management

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

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