It didn’t take much of a discerning eye to pick out the one name conspicuously absent from the full Mavs-Thunder series preview. James Harden is a legitimate NBA difference-maker, and yet he was swept under the rug in the preview treatment, set aside as a virtual non-factor in a battle of supporting casts that I believe Dallas is set to win. On the surface level, that’s a pretty clear disservice to Harden’s skill and production; he’s not a player that should be discounted without reason, and he’s been instrumental to the post-Jeff Green Thunder’s success.
Yet in this series, I just don’t see where Harden moves the needle.
Potentially, Harden has the capacity to act as something of a mediator for OKC — a Manu Ginobili to the occasionally disrupted balance of the offense created by the Durant-Westbrook dynamic. He doesn’t need to ever reach Ginobili’s level of production or efficiency in order to function effectively in this role, but merely provide the skill set in order to bring everything to a stylistic middle; he can spot up to space the floor, initiate the offense and find the open man, and slash down the lane for easy scoring opportunities. Creating an offensive flow centered around the perimeter positions may not be ideal to most coaches, but it can — and has — worked for the Thunder, and has the potential for further growth as Harden, Durant, and Westbrook mature as players. Essentially, Harden can actually be the player that Sam Presti had hoped Jeff Green would turn into, only with greater individual skills and a better fitting game.
He’s just not quite there yet. The Thunder offense is potent, but the equilibrium between OKC’s top perimeter players isn’t perfect. When Harden handles the ball, Westbrook is often reduced to a non-factor, stuck in the no man’s land of exiled point guards who can’t shoot but lack control of the possession. When Westbrook handles the ball, Harden is strictly a cutter and a shooter, an effective role but one that doesn’t encompass the entirety of his abilities. The balance can work for stretches, and sometimes the two-man approach of Westbrook-Durant or Harden-Durant is so effective that the third wheel hardly matters, but the lack of a fully actualized attack makes the Thunder very beatable. There are elements that need to be considered and countered, but a score doesn’t seem imminent on every possession.
The Mavericks defenders need to be aware of Harden’s presence, but the lack of overwhelming synergy between Durant, Westbrook, and Harden opens a window for him to be addressed directly. When Harden controls the ball, Dallas can treat him as they do Westbrook, albeit with more respect for his jumper. He doesn’t have Westbrook’s explosiveness, which allows the Mavs to play him closer on the bounce while still having Tyson Chandler as a safety net at the rim. When he’s playing off the ball, he’ll have to contend with Dallas’ strong close-outs. The Mavs are among the best in the NBA at getting a hand in the face of spot-up shooters (they ranked sixth in that regard during the regular season, and currently boast the second best points per possession allowed on such attempts in the postseason, per Synergy Sports Technology), and they’ll run at Harden (and Durant, for that matter) in particular to contest his three-point opportunities. Harden still has the capacity to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket or make a play in those instances, but Dallas holds the capability to take away Harden’s spot-up opportunities and much of what he accomplishes off the dribble. There’s no certainty that Harden will be kept under wraps for the entirety of the series, but his influence will likely be limited.
Harden is a fantastic player, but he won’t see the same opportunities in this series that he did against the Grizzlies. Dallas is a far more conservative defensive team, and while that results in less direct pressure on ball handlers and the like, it also keeps those playing off the ball in check, forcing them to convert a difficult shot from a neutral position rather than constructing every possession as a distinct scenario of advantage vs. disadvantage. Memphis is fantastic at jumping passing lanes and attacking the dribble, but the result is either a forced turnover or an open man on the weak side. Dallas grabs steals from time to time, but their system puts emphasis on denying the paint and contesting already difficult shots rather than forcing turnovers with aggressive ball pressure. The style of the Mavs’ defense just isn’t as accommodating to players like Harden, and while he still demands attention in the scouting report, the preventative means are in place to contain him.