HOUSTON — When Montrezl Harrell was new to the Houston Rockets last season, he found that there was a learning curve. But rather than merely adjusting to life in the NBA, which can be difficult enough on its own, Harrell struggled with something that seemed much more fundamental: catching James Harden’s passes.
“Oh, man,” said Harrell, a reserve forward. “I was getting hit in the chest. I got hit in the legs. I got hit in the head. That’s the way it goes.”
Harden, who emerged this season as a top candidate for the NBA’s MVP award, has long been known for his scoring. He flicks effortless jumpers from the 3-point line. He contorts his 6-foot-5 frame past defenders and extends to the rim for layups. And he draws fouls — so many fouls. He is the Michelangelo of creating contact.
But in leading the Rockets to a 2-0 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in their first-round playoff series, Harden has again displayed an undervalued part of his game: his creativity as a passer. He is capable of producing open looks for teammates in nanoseconds. In this series, his faith in them to make good on his generosity has stood in stark contrast to the way in which the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has attempted to shoot his team into the second round. Only one approach has worked so far.
“James is so good at delivering the ball,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
His teammates just have to be ready to catch it, which — at this late stage of the season — they usually are. Consider the first three possessions of the Rockets’ 115-111 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday night. Possession No. 1: Harden shovels a two-handed pass to Clint Capela, who finds Ryan Anderson for an open look from the 3-point line. Possession No. 2: Harden slings a one-handed pass to Trevor Ariza, who drives for a layup. Possession No. 3: Harden dribbles to draw defenders before kicking to Ariza at the 3-point line.
“He throws it anywhere and everywhere,” the Rockets’ Eric Gordon said. “His thing is, he continues to do it throughout the game, which a lot of players don’t do.”
After averaging 7.5 assists a game in the 2015-16 season, Harden led the league by averaging 11.2 assists a game this season. A big chunk of the credit ought to go to D’Antoni, whose spread-the-floor offense has shaped the Rockets into a title contender in his first season here. He also shifted Harden, a shooting guard in prior seasons, to point guard. The move ensured that Harden had the ball in his hands as often as possible. But by initiating the offense, Harden also found that he was able to get his teammates more involved.
There are occasions when Harden tries, perhaps, to do too much. He set a single-season NBA record by committing 464 turnovers. (Westbrook finished with 438, which left him second on the list of single-season leaders, according to Basketball Reference.) But D’Antoni did not mind at all. He compared turnovers to missed shots: Is there really that much difference?
“He’s not meaning to do it,” D’Antoni said. “He’s trying to make 15 assists. And you know what? I can coach him to mediocrity. I can tell him: ‘You know what, James? Don’t do all that. Just pass the ball over here and don’t do anything tricky.’ You can’t do that. You try to coach them to be great and let him be great, and he is great. If there are a few turnovers, there are a few turnovers.”
The team’s confidence grew out of that balance over the course of the season, and the Rockets are thriving through the first two games of the playoffs.
“I told the guys, ‘Just stay with it,'” Harden said. “If you got a shot, shoot it. And if you have an opportunity to drive, take those opportunities.”
On Wednesday night, Harden finished with 35 points and eight assists. He manufactured much of his production by getting to the foul line, where he made 18 of 20 free throws.
Westbrook, by comparison, had a brilliant night with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. But much of his handiwork was undone by a nightmarish fourth quarter in which he shot 4 of 18 from the field. He acknowledged after the game that he needed to do a better job finding his teammates.
“We haven’t seen the last of him,” said D’Antoni, who was looking ahead to Game 3 in Oklahoma City on Friday night.
In fairness to Westbrook, Harden has more talent around him: more scorers, more experience, more options. In some ways, his job is easier. He just has to make the right pass.