It’s no secret that James Harden is a prolific scorer. In fact, the Houston Rockets All-Star is currently leading the NBA in points per game with 34.4. This has led many to label him strictly as an offensive threat, but The Beard is also proving his defensive prowess inside the Orlando bubble.
In Houston’s first bubble game, Harden led the Rockets to a 152-149 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks in come-from-behind fashion, scoring a game-high 49 points to go along with three steals and three blocks. Then, on Sunday night, the former Arizona State standout led his team to yet another comeback win — this time over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Remarkably, Harden finished with six steals and played some stout defense against the reigning MVP in crunch time.
Harden, who is currently ranked fifth in steals, later noted that Houston’s defense was a key factor in the victory over the Bucks. In the few minutes, he played a key role in forcing three turnovers, including two by Antetokounmpo:
“Throughout the course of the game we played some really good defense,” Harden said during his postgame availability, via ESPN. “They’re a good offensive team but we got stops when we needed to.”
Harden’s defense down the stretch was 💯 pic.twitter.com/c0JN6ZFbhn
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) August 3, 2020
James Harden’s defense has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny over the years. Even Giannis, his opponent on Sunday night, has poked fun at Harden’s defense in the past. However, Harden has limited his embarrassing gaffes, and he is actually a solid post defender. He has great speed, a strong upper body, and pesky hands.
The Rockets play a switching style of defense. This sometimes creates mismatches, whereby a taller player is coming at Harden. Opposing sides often view this as an advantage, but he is not the best option to try any exploitation.
Prior to the NBA’s coronavirus hiatus, Harden was steadily improving his defensive numbers in the post. He was allowing just 0.65 points per post-up prior to the hiatus, which was good for the second-best mark in the league among 50 players with at least 50 post possessions defended.
Ask Raptors forward Pascal Siakam about the difficulties of posting up against James Harden:
Or, maybe we should ask Memphis Grizzlies big man Jonas Valanciunas about driving on Harden in the paint:
When defending Jonas Valanciunas, James Harden held him to 0-6 FG, 1 point (FT) and 2 turnovers. Clint Capela struggled against JV, giving up 25 points (8-11 FG). #Rockets switched 1/5 pick-and-roll, voluntary using Harden as a post defender. His defense sparked major comeback. pic.twitter.com/srV3b6Ng42
— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) March 21, 2019
Thanks in large part to Harden’s defensive efforts (and his scoring), the Rockets have pulled off comeback victories in their first two bubble games. As a credit to their team defense, they forced 23 Bucks turnovers and locked up an elite offensive team down the stretch. In fact, Houston is third in clutch defensive rating this season, per NBA.com. That means Harden is doing something right on that end when games are on the line.
Perhaps it’s time to put some respect on this aspect of James Harden’s game. He may not grab Defensive Player of the Year anytime soon, but it’s clear that he’s playing harder on that end of the floor and making a difference.