• The reigning MVP's stepback has become such a viable weapon, it powered Houston to a 112-108 win in Game 4, drawing its series with Golden State to 2-2.
By Rob Mahoney
May 07, 2019

HOUSTON –– The public litigation of a superstar’s game can be an exhausting process in the NBA world, an endless hike of both mountains and molehills. Even matters that seem settled rarely are. A basketball career is a living body of work, subject to constant revision and with countless opportunities to disappoint. Fair or not, a costly error can change the framing of a player’s entire season. A meeting with the wrong matchup can make even the impressive seem somehow suspect. There is no standardized weight to a winning effort or a bungled game, which leaves the matter to be decided in every forum imaginable. The debate rages on social media and in barber shops, in living rooms and within teams themselves. And for whatever reason, that conversation seems to reach a fever pitch with James Harden.

Why that has become the case is a complicated matter, though the conversation around Harden has likely become divisive for the same reason all things are: How you feel about the way Harden plays speaks in some way to your outlook on the game, or on competition, or—if you’ll allow it—the human endeavor. Harden is both clever and callous. He is not only creative, but manipulative. His style of play has supposedly ruined basketball … by dominating it in an unexpected way. There’s room for reasonable people to disagree as to Harden’s salesmanship, his footwork, and his past playoff failures. What’s not up for debate is this: James Harden, in this latest seven-round slugfest with the juggernaut Warriors, has delivered on all that could be expected of a superstar.

If the way Harden plays for the foul is your objection, know that he only needed eight free throws—a perfectly reasonable number for a player of his stature—to total 38 points. Should the aesthetics of his game bug you, it might be time to revisit the premise through his dynamic finishes and step-back artistry. If your sticking point is Harden’s checkered playoff track record, know that it was by his propulsive offense that the Rockets first saved their season in Game 3, and then extended it with a 112-108 win in Game 4. 

“He hits big shot after big shot every night,” Chris Paul said. “He don’t take no nights off. Like I always say: fans, kids, and all them don't get to see the work that's been put in. So when everybody oohs and aahs at them step-backs, we used to it. That’s a tough shot. It’s a tough move. But if you practice it, it's what you do.”

What Harden has done, in this series, is answer the call. His step-back three has become such a viable weapon as to confound one of the most versatile defensive teams in the league. Andre Iguodala is a brilliant defender capable of executing a gameplan to textbook precision. The only problem is that no textbook edition is yet up to date; Harden has perfected a skill so contrary to the traditional goals of offense as to make respected professionals attempt to guard him from behind. Golden State hasn’t tried anything so radical, though most of their other approaches have run their course. Harden has gotten whatever he’s wanted against Klay Thompson—even sometimes baiting Thompson into fouls he knows not to commit. Shaun Livingston and Kevon Looney (a fairly switchable center under normal circumstances) haven’t stood a chance. The Warriors have made it a tactical priority to keep Stephen Curry out of Harden’s sights whenever possible, if partly to save Curry from his reach-happy self. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green have held their own against Harden and done their best to provide help. It just hasn’t been enough.

“I think that’s what makes our team good,” Tucker said. “Everybody does their job. Everybody is intense in their own way and does their own job. James does what he does. Chris does what he does. Eric does what he does. And that's what makes us us.” There was a simplicity to the way the ball moved that demonstrated a real understanding of the opponent at hand—a simplicity that wasn’t there at the start of this series. Harden was its author. In a seven-game series, all that a team can really ask of its best player is that he learn. Some strategies will stifle him. Others will beat him. So you take what troubles you and you pick it apart, reverse-engineering a new approach from a point of weakness. Harden is making the secondary assists he overlooked a week ago. One eye (hopefully the less bloodied of the two) is now trained to Green’s movements, inverting the cat-and-mouse dynamic that helped Golden State build a 2-0 lead. This is a new Harden, which makes it a new series.

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