• Brian L. Barefield

HAR-”D”-EN Late defensive stops down the stretch by Rockets superstar has propelled Houston.

With 16.2 seconds left on the clock in Sunday’s matchup between the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, the reigning 2019 NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounpo found himself with an opportunity to take advantage of a statement he made earlier this year about former 2018 MVP James Harden. During a press conference after the 2020 NBA All-Star game, Antetokounpo said his team’s defensive scheme towards the end of the game was, to get the ball to whoever James Harden was guarding.

So, with the ball in his (Antetokounpo) hands and his team down by one point, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar dribbled the length of the court with Harden playing defense on him every step of the way. Each guy was carrying the weight on his shoulders of getting to the 2020 NBA Finals while playing in unusual circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Harden played great defense on Antetokounpo forcing him out of his sweet spot on the court and into a defensive steal by teammate Danuel House Jr. Houston eventually won the game bringing their record to 2-0 in the bubble.

“Throughout the course of the game we played some really good defense,” Harden said. “They’re a good offensive team but we got stops when we needed to.”

That would be the extent of how far Harden would go about the matchup. When asked how hard it was to defend Antetokounpo, the leading scorer in the NBA this year answered in typical Harden fashion.

“Next question,” he said.

Defense has always been the one knock on Harden’s place in history as one of the best to play the game. He scores at a rapid pace like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, etc. Yet the strongest criticism he has received is he doesn’t give his all on the defensive side of the ball and rightfully so in some cases, but this year he has made a concerted effort to step up on the defensive side of the ball.

Harden has become very effective when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll. He allows 0.78 points when defending the primary ball handler. He also is great in the post where he can use his 6’5-foot frame and stature to hold opponents to 0.65 points per post-up. These are the things the Rockets will need down the stretch in this accelerated restart the NBA is doing to finish its 2020 season.

In Friday night’s victory over the Dallas Mavericks, it was Harden who contributed greatly when the Rockets needed it the most on the defensive end finding him matched up with Mavericks rising superstar Luka Doncic. After trailing for the majority of the game, the Rockets held Dallas to a combined 30 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

If Houston can continue to get the same tenacity and ferociousness out of Harden on the defensive end like they do on the offensive end, the Rockets will be looking to represent the Western Conference in the Finals this year.

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