It’s very rare in basketball that you can talk about playing terrific defense against a player who scored 38 points.
But James Harden is a different breed. The Houston guard is being hailed among the great offensive players in NBA history (not by me, by the way) and the Trail Blazers held him to 38, shutting down his streak of five consecutive 40-point games. And it helped the Trail Blazers post a 110-101 win over the Rockets in Moda Center. The victory gave Portland the season series over Houston for the first season since 2014-15.
And seriously, holding a player to 38 points when he’s getting 35 shots, including 17 three-point shots and seven free throws, is an achievement.
Credit Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu for the defensive job.
Turner, who had Harden most of the time, said he, “Had to be aggressive and limit what (Harden) liked to do. He’s been on a hell of a run and obviously he’s the head of the snake so I just tried to pick him up and wear him down, tire him down and not get any cheap fouls.
“I wanted to contest his shots and not get any cheap fouls contesting his shots.
“I don’t know how to say it. It doesn’t make any damn sense – I get to the line 20 times in a month and he might go to the line 20 times in two hours.
“His feel for the game is unreal. You just have to play cat and mouse with him.”
Harden needed 35 shots to get his 38 points.
“I’d take that,” Turner said. “Chief, wouldn’t you take that? 13 for 35 and 38 points?”
Aminu (“Chief”) assured Turner he’t take it, too.
“You have to be locked in every play because the ball is in his hands so much,” Aminu said,. “It’s fun, though. He’s going to go at you one-on-one and in the pick and roll. You get to test yourself, defensively, to see where you stack up.”
Harden is one of the great tricksters in the game – goading defenders into reaching in on his shot, getting them to foul him on his jumper and tricking the referees into putting him on the foul line, whether he deserves it or not.
“He’s able to trick the refs sometimes,” Aminu said. “That’s part of the game. You’ve got to tip your hat to him. I thought we did a great job on him tonight. I tip my hat to ET and myself and really everybody.”
Reminded that Harden needed 35 shots to get his points, Aminu nodded his head.
“I feel like sometimes that gets overlooked,” he said. “This was a great defensive game against Harden and it should be commended as such.”
Asked if he ever got 35 shots in a game, Aminu thought about it for a few seconds and said that, yes, he did once.
“In a summer game,” he said. “Not the (NBA) summer league but a summer pro-am league.”
Coach Terry Stotts shook his head, smiled, and said, “Well, we held him under 40 so I guess that’s a win.”
But seriously, though…
“I thought Evan and Chief and other people obviously were switched on (Harden) – I thought they didn’t fall for many tricks. They were locked in, they didn’t reach, they contested.
"Obviously, he got it going in the third quarter but we didn’t get rattled. I thought they both took a lot of pride in the challenge that they had.”
Harden said, “We gave away offensive rebounds and we didn’t get on transition enough. And give them credit, they’re a good team, especially at home.”
The Trail Blazers got 25 points from Jusuf Nurkic, 24 from CJ McCollum and 17 from Damian Lillard. And they took care of a lot of the little things you need to beat good teams. Portland had a 54-44 edge in points in the paint, 21-7 advantage in second-chance points and a 14-7 margin in fast-break points. The Blazers also owned a seven-rebound edge on the offensive boards.
Harden, by the way, should have had his 40-point game. He missed a driving layup with 4.9 seconds to that would have done it.