Harden steps up in defence

Free-scoring guard limited to 35pts, but late stop helps Rockets secure win over Raptors

Houston Rockets guard James Harden reacts after a play during the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Toyota Center on Jan 25, 2019.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden reacts after a play during the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Toyota Center on Jan 25, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

HOUSTON (Texas) • James Harden has been such an offensive threat for the Houston Rockets this National Basketball Association (NBA) season that there were eyebrows raised when he scored a "quiet" 35 points on Friday night.

Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse's game plan to target the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player at the Toyota Centre worked in stopping the star guard from recording another 50-point game.

But what the Raptors did not expect was for him to be a rock-solid wall as well, particularly when he crucially kept out Kawhi Leonard during the final seconds.

Harden, who is averaging more than 50 points in his last five games and has now scored 30-plus points in 22 straight games, still led Houston to a 121-119 win despite not being his usual offensive self.

His stretch of 30-point games is the fourth-longest in NBA history, behind three streaks by Wilt Chamberlain of 65, 31, and 25 games.

"James gets 35, and it's like, 'Oh really, that's all he can do?'," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "But his defence is a lot better than what people give him credit for.

"He came up huge."

The Rockets (28-20) led by 11 points with 74 seconds to go but the Raptors (36-15) cut the margin to two, 121-119, with 27 seconds left.

On the final play, Leonard decided to go for a three, instead of a two-point basket which would have tied it. He shot an air ball with Harden guarding him.

"I was just trying to contest it. It was kind of sloppy, but we won and that is all that matters," Harden said.

"If I got to score a lot of points, or whatever my team needs me to do, I am going to do (it)."

According to Second Spectrum data, he allows only 0.74 points per post-up possession, which is tied for the fourth-fewest in the NBA among players who have defended at least 75 post possessions.

Fresh off a club-record 61 points in Wednesday's win over the New York Knicks, Harden was just nine of 25 from the field and two of 13 from three-point range in his lowest-scoring outing since a Jan 7 win over the Denver Nuggets.

"I wish I could have a quiet 35 points," Rockets reserve Gerald Green joked.

Harden gave credit to the Raptors defence. "Some teams allow me to score points, some teams are going to take those points away from me and I have got to facilitate. We had a great team effort," he said of the Rockets' starters, who all scored 10 points or more.

Eric Gordon scored 24, Kenneth Faried had 21 and 14 rebounds, P. J. Tucker added 18 and Austin Rivers scored 13.

Leonard, who returned after being rested for four games, scored 32 points for the Raptors, who lost their second straight game.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 27, 2019, with the headline 'Harden steps up in defence'. Subscribe