The Houston Rockets are gunning for an NBA championship behind the power of James Harden’s individual scoring prowess. He isolates defenders away from their teammates and terrorizes them with a sorcerer’s array of deceptive and deadly moves. In fact, the stats show Harden goes 1-on-1 more often than most teams do.
Against the world champion Golden State Warriors, Harden targets the smaller Stephen Curry to be his dance partner. ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry did a deep dive on the matchup and the numbers are fascinating. From a piece entitled: “How James Harden relentlessly attacks Steph Curry”.
Dating back to the 2016-17 season, more than 5,000 unique NBA player duos have matched up at least 100 times. But within that massive sample, Harden vs. Curry produces the most extreme stats.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, consider these four factoids, via Second Spectrum tracking:
No other matchup elicits a higher usage rate by the offensive player
No other matchup is more likely to include a drive
Only three other matchups produce free throws at a higher rate
Only six other matchups yield more points for the offensive player
It’s clear that Harden has the greenest of green lights when he’s got Curry on an island.
Goldsberry then goes on to explain what should be obvious to anyone who understands how good the Warriors defense is: it’s pretty much Houston’s only hope to score consistently.
Harden attacking the other members of the champ’s defense is the equivalent of this poor kid’s “Claw Game” fail at the arcade.
Additionally, going at Curry relentlessly should theoretically wear out the smaller man’s legs and put him at risk for foul trouble.
Last year before the two teams met in the Western Conference Finals, Curry voiced his understanding of the strategy and also his resolution to fight it.
I also believe it opens up a psychological war. Think about it: Harden has the freedom to initiate playground dribble moves at his leisure in his attempts to clown Curry. Curry has more restriction under head coach Steve Kerr’s team ball approach, which generally frowns upon repeated isos unless a player has the hot hand.
Imagine being Curry, standing in a defensive stance for 15+ seconds watching this bearded jester dance all around the court before drilling a bucket in your face or flopping his way to the free throw line.
You know he can’t guard you, and you would love to put him into a blender on the other end as payback. But, your coach is motioning for you to give the ball up to Draymond Green so you can sprint around screens and get mugged off ball trying to get open. How many players with the talents of Curry could accept that level of discipline?
I truly admire Curry’s resolve to stick to the team principles as opposed to get lured into a dance contest with Harden. I also love those moments when he decides enough is enough and it’s time to strike back.