James Harden went out and did what he does Monday night in Houston. He didn’t even do it as well or as often as he usually does.
The guy averages 39.5 points, 14.6 three-point attempts and 14.8 free-throw attempts per game. And he fell short of all those things.
“If you would have told me that he would shoot 10 threes and 10 free throws, I would probably take that all night,” Trail Blazer Coach Terry Stotts said. “For him, he had a sub-par night.”
But par for Harden is different than other players. He’s a scoring and foul-drawing machine. Along the way he has his tricks – for opponents and referees – and pulled some of them off against the Trail Blazers as his Rockets dumped Portland 132-108.
Everyone knows about his step-back three-point shots. And the way he throws a leg out on that shot as he’s falling backwards, very often drawing fouls on unsuspecting defenders, even though officials know he does that every night. He travels more than most players, too, and gets away with it most of the time.
All in all, he’s probably the hardest-to-watch great player I’ve ever seen. Because it's as if he has a cheat code.
For the record, he finished with 27 points, five rebounds and five assists, hitting five of his 10 threes. For Harden, that’s practically a night off, rather than an off-night.
But his skilled ball handling and clever moves combined with his ability to fool referees make him an almost impossible player to defend.
“He gets calls every night,” CJ McCollum said. “A lot of them are fouls. He knows how to play the game. He’s aggressive, he’s smart. Got to give him credit. Averaging 20 points a game in this league is tough, Averaging 30 is great. Averaging 35 or 40 is next-level great.”
Lillard talked about the hazards of trying to defend Harden when he’s getting the calls he often gets.
“It’s hard to defend,” Lillard said, “When he’s driving to the basket, you don’t want to touch him. When he’s rising up for a three, you don’t want to get too close to him because he’s kicking his legs out and throwing his arms up on his follow-through, through your arms. If you get that type of whistle, it’s tough to defend.”
What made Harden doubly tough on Monday was his passing skills. He drew players to him and often dished off to teammates for easy baskets.
“He did what he normally does,” Rodney Hood said. “And he got his teammates involved. He wasn’t as aggressive as he’s been in the past couple games, but he got everyone else involved and I think that’s what got them going.”
And so it goes. Playing the Rockets, especially in the regular season, is going to be a tough task. In the playoffs, when the officiating is usually better and the pressure is heavier, things have always changed for Houston and Harden.
But this year, time will tell.