“James is so good at delivering the ball,” 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.
Anderson and Ariza misfired on their 3-point attempts, but Harden was clearly working to engage his teammates. Anderson wound up struggling in the win, shooting 1 of 8 from the field. He missed all seven of his 3-point attempts. But Harden never abandoned him. In fact, he appeared determined to help lift Anderson out of his malaise.
“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 last 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 N.B.A. 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, Harden finished with 35 points and 8 assists. He manufactured much of his production by getting to the foul line, where he made 18 of 20 free throws. But he also had help. Gordon and Lou Williams combined for 43 points off the bench, and Harden found Gordon for a 3-pointer that gave Houston an insurmountable lead with less than two minutes remaining.
“James draws a lot of attention,” Gordon said. “And that play, when he comes off the screen, you’ve just got to be ready. So I was ready.”
Westbrook, by comparison, had a brilliant night with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. For three quarters, he seemed fully capable of evening the series with a virtuoso performance. 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.
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