Throw out the slow start and the shaky free throws and there was not much to be overly concerned with in the Thunder’s 105-94 Game 1 victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday night.
But there was the curious case of James Harden.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year was MIA, struggling to make an impact offensively while, frankly, having a negative impact defensively. He scored just five points on 2-for-6 shooting in 22 minutes. He had three assists and zero rebounds. He had one turnover, four fouls and didn’t attempt a single free throw.
It quite possibly was Harden’s worst performance this season.
The fact that the Thunder won essentially without him is a testament to the team’s depth and resiliency.
But there’s no doubt Harden has to get going. So how does he do that?
Tuesday’s struggles were not an isolated occurrence. Harden has been held in check by Miami all season. His stat line in the first regular season appears solid: 19 points, 6-of-7 shooting, three rebounds and six assists. But those numbers belie the difficulty Harden had in that game. The more telling figure is seven — as in turnovers, a career-high that Harden registered that night. In the second meeting, Harden was held to 12 points on 11 shots and got to the free throw line only once. On Tuesday, he didn’t get to the stripe at all.
So what gives?
The Heat’s defense is hounding Harden. Miami is making things tough by blowing up ball screens and aggressively attacking Harden in the pick-and-roll, preventing him from either turning the corner or resorting to his preferred method of splitting the screen and driving into the paint. The Heat’s aggression has taken Harden completely out of the offense.
“The three times we’ve played them, they’ve done a good job with James; of really attacking his dribble and trapping his pick-and-rolls,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks following his team’s shootaround Thursday morning. “But he has to figure that out by moving it quickly and attacking the outside foot of the bigs. I expect him to do that much better tonight.”
Miami’s small lineup is causing Harden most of his problems. With LeBron James, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem serving as the Heat’s “bigs,” Harden is being met by athletic wings in James and Battier, and an agile power forward in Haslem, after using the screen. They’re effectively cutting off his space and forcing Harden to give up the ball.
“That’s the Heat’s DNA, they always do a great job on pick-and-roll situations,” said Kevin Durant. “Just making guys get off the basketball, and James is a good passer so things are going to open up for him. We got to try to get him more involved. He’ll be fine…We got to help him out.”
But the Thunder noticed something else while analyzing film over the past two days. Harden saw it. His coaches did, too.
“He was a little tentative with his game,” Brooks said. “I thought he had opportunities to attack quickly. I think he dribbled too many times in the same spot. When James is at his best he makes his move quick. He’s not looking for a secondary move. He’s attacking and making plays for himself or his teammates. I thought he was playing with the ball too much last game.”
Will Game 2 be any different?
“Hopefully he does a much better job,” Brooks said. “We’re well aware of that. He’s well aware of that. But now he has to do it on the court.”