James Harden’s Big Play Sets Up Lakers’ Next Playoff Foe

James Harden, in black.

Getty James Harden, in black.

James Harden was not bashful when he described how he played in Game 7 of the Rockets’ first-round NBA playoff series against the Thunder. Speaking to a live national audience on ESPN, Harden said, “Offensively, I played like s***.”

Indeed, Harden scored 17 points, his worst postseason output since 2018, a span of 35 games. He was 4-for-15 shooting, just 1-for-9 from the 3-point line and committed four turnovers. It was bad.

But Harden still managed to make the play of the game, one steeped in irony—a blocked shot by Harden, among the weakest defenders of any of the league’s elite players, of an attempted Lu Dort (himself a defensive specialist) game-winning 3-pointer with 4.8 seconds to play in the game. After blocking the shot, Harden had the presence of mind to leap up and avoid being hit by the ball as Dort attempted to throw it off his leg to keep the possession with the Thunder.

The win puts the Rockets through to the second round of the playoffs, where they will face the Lakers beginning on Friday. That’s not exactly good news for L.A., which has been off since dispatching Portland on Saturday, August 29. The Lakers won their season series outright against 12 of the 14 other Western Conference teams. They split the season’s four games against the Clippers. There is only one team against whom the Lakers lost the season series—the Rockets, who won two of three against L.A.

It is worth pointing out, though, that the third game of that set, won by the Rockets on August 6 during the NBA restart in Orlando, saw the Lakers sit LeBron James in a contest that meant nothing in the standings. Houston was without Russell Westbrook in that one.

Rockets Present Bigger Challenge to Lakers

In staving off elimination, the Rockets gave the Lakers a much bigger challenge in the conference semifinals than the Thunder would have presented. As difficult as the Thunder were for the Rockets to handle, the Lakers are a bad matchup for OKC and the Thunder, with young players in critical roles, would have been an easier foe to topple.

We have already seen several analysts predict that the Lakers could fall to Houston.

ESPN’s Jay Williams in early August that the Rockets ought to be trying to stay in the No. 4 or 5 seeding slot because he thought the matchups could give Houston an edge.

I think that is the matchup they want to see in the Western Conference semifinals.

I don’t think they want to see the Clippers until the Finals because of their wings and the way they can match up. But a bigger Lakers team, where you can involve them in a ton of PnR (pick and roll), and James Harden and Russell Westbrook get hot? That could be the matchup that you’re looking for.

Stephen A. Smith, also of ESPN, said after the Lakers played the Rockets last month, “I think this is a big deal for the Houston Rockets, I think they put everybody on notice. This encounter everybody has been looking forward to all year long, between the Lakers and the Clippers … if Houston ends up running into the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston we might have a problem. In a good way. Because Houston might knock them off.”

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Houston Rockets Have Been Trendy Darkhorse Pick in the NBA

It’s not just the analysts who are warning about the Rockets. General manager Daryl Morey said back in June that the Rockets, “should win this thing.”

And in interviews with Heavy.com, multiple coaches said Houston could be best positioned to pull off a surprise in the league’s restarted format. That’s because their offense does not require much cohesion, relying more heavily than any other team on isolation plays and star production.

Harden is the NBA’s iso king. He averaged 14.5 isolation possessions per game, first in the league by a long way. No. 2 is Westbrook, who averaged 7.4 iso possessions per game. It’s a drop-off to No. 3, Portland’s Damian Lillard at 4.7 isolation possessions per game.

In fact, the Blazers are the No. 2 team in running isolation plays, and they average 11.2 per game. Harden and Westbrook alone run nearly twice as many.

“Give the ball to James and get out of the way,” one assistant coach said about the Rockets’ offense. “When you don’t have James out there, give it to Russ. There is not a whole lot to drill those guys on. Let James and Russ do their thing and hope your perimeter shooters can make 3s when they’re open. That is a huge advantage coming back into this mix.”

Another head coach agreed. “What is worrying all of us is getting some chemistry back,” the coach said. “If you’re Houston, you don’t have to worry about chemistry or feel or getting back that momentum. They have the same game plan no matter what and they’re going to hit their stride faster.”

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