Watch Now:
Rockets Take 3-2 Lead Over Thunder in Russell Westbrook’s Return
(3:21)

Russell Westbrook made his postseason debut for the Houston Rockets on Saturday, but it was James Harden’s show. Harden went for 31 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 4 of 8 from three, as the Rockets used a second-half explosion to eviscerate OKC and and take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series. 

Westbrook was a relative non-factor, finishing with seven points. Harden will need Westbrook to get up to speed soon. Assuming the Rockets finish off the Thunder (the team that wins Game 5 in a 2-2 series goes on to win the series more than 82 percent of the time), LeBron James and the Lakers — who bounced the Blazers later on Saturday night — are waiting. 

But for now, Harden with a cast of shooters around him is more than enough against the offensively challenged Thunder. Rookie Lu Dort, who has become everyone’s favorite defender in the bubble (for good reason; the guy is a laterally sliding brick), has drawn the Harden assignment this series, and he has genuinely, if relatively, made life tough on the Rockets’ one-on-one superstar, but even he was no match for Harden once he got going on Saturday. 

And poor Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. This man had himself a bad night. Perhaps the purest compliment Harden could pay Dort’s defense is how aggressively he penetrated the instant he got anyone else on him, and on Saturday it was Gilgeous-Alexander who drew the short straw over and over; in the clips below, watch how all the other Rockets forgo ball screens, clear the lane and just get out of the way as soon as the possession evolves into that one-on-one matchup.

Gilgeous-Alexander just has no chance of staying in front of Harden, nor does he have the strength to at least partially combat being a step slow. For the series, Harden is shooting a cool 75 percent (9 for 12) from the field when SGA is guarding him, per NBA.com’s matchup data. Compare that to the 32 percent (13 for 40) Harden is shooting when being guarded by Dort, and you can see why he looks to take advantage of alternative matchups as often as possible. 

That said, Dort found himself in the Harden blender plenty on Saturday as well. In the clip below, Harden goes away from the ball screen to cross up Dort.

That is such a perfect counter move against Dort, who is already arguably the best screen evader in the league; if you do manage to contact him, he’s as strong as an ox, but what really sets him apart is simply his unwillingness to be screened. He anticipates when and where a screen is coming, and he beats it before the play develops. That’s what he’s trying to do on the play above, jump on the high side before Harden gets going. The second he leans, Harden uses that anticipation against Dort and goes the other way. 

On this next play, you’ll see Dort fight through a screen again; this time he can’t get over the top, so he quickly darts under and then muscles his way through Robert Covington to get back in front of Harden (the value of this kind of effort cannot be overstated). But in this case, it doesn’t matter. Harden still hits him with a crossover to get him just slightly off balance, at which point he drives his shoulder right into Dort’s body and finishes at the rim. 

It is not easy to move Dort backward like Harden just did right there, even if Dort was a bit off balance and retreating from the initial move. Again, the guy is a brick wall. That’s what makes Harden such a special penetrator; not only can he cross you up with his handle, but he also has the strength to play through contact. 

Here again Dort fights over a screen; twice, in fact. But on the second one, he lunges so hard to get over the top of Covington’s pick, Harden uses that momentum against him by stopping on a dime and getting downhill to his left hand. Easy money. 

Unlike Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort is not getting baked by Harden for a lack of effort or even execution. He is doing everything right. This is just how great Harden is as a one-on-one scorer. Once he got it going on Saturday night, nobody was going to stop him. 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here