Off nights are still great games for Rockets’ Harden

James Harden no longer has bad games. That is not just a statement on his 21-game pillage of the NBA, but a recognition that his recent performance is not really a streak or the result of unsustainable shooting but a change in how the game is played. There is some perfect formula out there, one that promises good returns no matter the variables, and Harden has found it. This is not to say that he won’t have bad shooting nights or high turnover games, as he has had both even in the past week, but to say that he can have off shooting nights or games where he’s sloppy with the ball and he’ll still drop 40 to 50 on elite-level efficiency.

Did I say 50? Let’s make that 60. 

James Harden, one of the three or four animate bodies on the court Wednesday night, pinched-off 61 points on the Knicks collection of up-and-down rookies, failed lottery picks, and giant teddy bears purchased from a New York-area Walgreens. It was a truly remarkable performance, not just because of the raw totals or the cartoonish incompetence of his teammates, but because he managed to score that 61 points on 62-percent true-shooting without playing close to his best.

What has changed, as far as I can tell, is volume. Since December 20th, Harden has played in 17 games and shot 13 or more threes in 16 of them. In the previous 27 outings, Harden did so only five times. Not only has this created more room in the paint, it has forced defenses to game plan around his step-back three. Some teams have even played Harden from behind, most notably Milwaukee, but usually teams instead have defending players anticipate the three and lunge forward to make up space, often undermining Harden in the process. Even if Harden goes 5-20 from three on a given night, the way defenses play him almost necessitates fouling. This is the baseline. Eight free-throws off of threes, as he had against the Knicks, turns a bad shooting game in to a solid one and a solid game in to a good one. 

Harden’s 25 free-throw mark against New York is high even for him, though not unprecedented. In those 27 60-point games since ’83, the player responsible has taken 25 or more trips to the line eight times. The Beard’s 38 field goal attempts are similarly ranked, this time coming in ninth. The only two players to reach both of those thresholds are David Robinson and Devin Booker, both of whom scored 70-plus. 

What Harden has realized is that as he shoots more and more shots, the pressure on the defense goes up exponentially. If you are worried about fouls you play defense with your hands behind your back, as Josh Hart attempted for the Lakers. If you are worried about threes you play Harden from behind, as Eric Bledsoe did for the Bucks. If you are worried about drives, you play the 1-2-2 zone, like the Nets. But Harden leads the league in drives, threes, and free throws; and you cannot account for all of x, y, and z.  

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