- The Washington Times
Sunday, April 21, 2019

James Harden missed his first 15 shots Saturday against the Utah Jazz. The Houston Rockets star didn’t finish that much better, either — shooting 3-of-20 from the field.

But the Rockets still won.

And Harden somehow finished with 22 points.

The Jazz did their best to slow down Harden, but the Rockets edged out a 104-101 win. It spoke volumes that Harden — despite becoming the first player in 20 years to miss that many shots to begin a playoff game, according to ESPN — was able to be effective in different ways, going 14-of-16 from the free throw line and dishing out 10 assists. The 29-year-old also drained his signature step-back 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter to seal the win.

The Rockets, up 3-0, are now one game away from advancing to the second round — where they’ll presumably meet the Golden State Warriors, who took a 3-1 series lead Sunday over the Los Angeles Clippers. For true NBA diehards, that will be this year’s finals.

Though the Warriors have been the NBA’s juggernaut for the last five years, the Rockets look like a legitimate threat to knock off the two-time defending champions.

After pushing the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals last year, the Rockets appear to have taken another step — in large part because of Harden.

One player won’t be enough to upset the likes of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But around the Harden, the Rockets have installed a perfect system that takes advantage of Harden’s skill set.

Under coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets have revolutionized basketball. They launched a league-high 45.4 3-point attempts per game — with Harden alone attempting 13.2 of them. For context, 20 years ago, Harden’s attempts would have been more than 13 other NBA teams.

Harden, too, is an incredibly efficient isolation player — making defenses often have to “pick their poison” against the 2017-18 MVP. Bring an extra defender to trap Harden, and the guard can usually find an open P.J. Tucker or Eric Gordon in the corner. In pick-and-rolls, helping out on Harden will usually free up center Clint Capela for an easy dunk at the rim.

The seven-time All-Star averaged 36.1 points per game this season — the most since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 in 1986-87. His footwork befuddles opponents — with many eager to claim he travels on his step back. He gets to the line consistently.

The Warriors, though, have the talent to withstand Harden, who hasn’t always been the most consistent playoff performer. At their best, the Warriors look like one of the best teams in NBA history.

But if — when — the two meet in the next round, will Golden State be able to play at that high of a level consistently? With Durant’s free agency looming over the franchise, Golden State has looked vulnerable this season. Most recently, they blew a 31-point lead to the Clippers in Game 2, the biggest collapse in NBA postseason history. (It’s worth noting, they responded by stomping the Clippers the following game.)

For the Rockets, an earlier matchup with Golden State could work in their favor. In last year’s series, Houston star Chris Paul missed Games 6 and 7 with a hamstring injury.

There’s an argument to be made that the sooner these teams meet — with Paul still relatively fresh — that might be better suited for Houston.

Appearing on the Bill Simmons’ Podcast last week, Morey said “it’s very, very difficult” to know if meeting in the second round will matter compared to the Conference Finals. He noted that this year, Houston won’t have home court.

“All I know is we pretty much knew we had to beat them,” Morey said. “So does the order really matter? Probably not. … I do think we’re a better team going into the series, but without home court, maybe our odds are similar to last year.

“I don’t know. We do feel very strongly that we have a real shot at it, but obviously, they’re the champs three of the last for years for a reason.”

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