What's wrong with James Harden?
On Thursday, Kevin Durant stepped up. Now it's time for his former teammate to follow suit. Thanks to Durant's big Game 6, James Harden of the Houston Rockets is now the biggest playoff disappointment this side of Roy Hibbert.
While Harden's defensive shortcomings have been well documented, he was supposed to make up for them at the other end. With the Portland Trail Blazers contesting his every move, Harden has been unable to do that during this series, which the Blazers will try to close out at home in tonight's Game 6.
How has Portland done it? And how can Harden and Houston respond to try to keep their season alive? Let's take a look.Keeping Harden out of the paint
First and foremost, the Blazers have achieved their goal of denying Harden easy opportunities. During the regular season, 30.6 percent of his shot attempts came in the restricted area, according to NBA.com/Stats
. That figure has dropped by a third in the playoffs to 20.5 percent -- a difference of between two and three shots close to the basket per game.
Keeping Harden away from the hoop starts in transition. Per Synergy Sports, transition opportunities were the single biggest source of Harden's shots during the regular season, accounting for more than a quarter of his attempts. In this series, that's down to 15 percent, depriving Harden of his most efficient opportunities.
The next piece of the puzzle is on-ball defense from Wesley Matthews, with assistance from Nicolas Batum. Both players have aggressively denied Harden the ball and done a good job of keeping him in front of them defensively. Matthews' strength has been particularly effective in this matchup.
Still, it's impossible for a single defender to contain Harden, and the Blazers' big men have been conscious of where he is at all times, leaving them ready to provide help defense. Harden has had 8.6 percent of his shot attempts blocked in this series, as compared to 5.0 percent during the regular season.Keeping Harden off the line
In addition to preventing Harden from getting easy attempts around the basket, Portland has taken away his easiest attempts of all -- free throws. During the regular season, Harden attempted .552 free throws for every field goal attempt. That has declined to a .322 free throw rate in this series.
Intriguingly, Harden is still drawing fouls just as often overall. However, according to Synergy Sports, 41 percent of the fouls he has drawn in this series have been shooting fouls, compared to 64 percent during the regular season.
While Harden has baited Matthews into a few shooting fouls -- particularly in Game 1, when he drew five of his 13 shooting fouls in this series -- the Blazers have done an excellent job of staying down on Harden's fakes and avoiding his rip-through move. Harden has mostly gotten to the line in fast-break situations, where Portland has little choice but to foul.Frustration attempts
Beyond what the Blazers' defense has done, Harden has contributed to his own problems with poor shot selection. Too often, he has gotten frustrated with his inability to get to the paint and has settled for contested shots from midrange -- exactly what the Rockets want to avoid. This pull-up attempt against Batum with plenty of time remaining on the shot clock is typical of Harden's frustration attempts:
Though Harden has settled for some contested 3s as well, the biggest difference between his shot selection in the regular season and during the playoffs so far is 2-point attempts outside the paint.
About one-sixth of the difference between Harden's true shooting percentage during the regular season (.618) and in this series (.471) is attributable to his shot distribution. Another sixth is explained by his free throw attempts being down. The rest can be credited to Harden shooting lower percentages at the rim (41.7 percent vs. 61.4 percent) and from 3-point range (25.0 percent vs. 36.6 percent).Solutions
At the risk of restating the obvious, a good option to get Harden going is utilizing him in pick-and-rolls with Dwight Howard. After experiencing success with the two-man game featuring All-Stars in Portland, Houston went away from it somewhat during Game 5. Synergy tracked just three Harden-Howard pick-and-rolls that generated shot attempts. Because of the respect Portland must pay the threat of Howard rolling to the rim, Harden has been most successful at getting into the paint with Howard as the screener.
Harden also has to be more decisive. While his patient, deliberate style has served him well in his career -- especially in terms of drawing fouls -- it's not working against an opponent that has him scouted well. Harden has been at his best when he has attacked aggressively while staying under control, as on the reverse layup he made with four minutes left in Game 5 as part of a run that secured the victory.
Because Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons both stepped up to score 20-plus points, the Rockets were able to win on Wednesday with Harden making just five of his 15 shot attempts. Facing a hostile crowd tonight in Portland, the Rockets will surely need more from Harden to force a Game 7.