The Houston Rockets cruised in the first two games of their first-round series against the Utah Jazz, winning by 20-plus points in each game to take a 2-0 lead. The main reason for their success, as has been the case all season long, was the play of their star man, James Harden.
In the first two games in Houston, Harden averaged a triple-double, putting up 30.5 points, 10.5. rebounds and 10 assists per game, while shooting 44 percent from the field overall, and 43 percent from 3-point land. As for Game 3 in Salt Lake City, well… it didn’t go quite as well. Harden missed his first 15 shots from the field, and finished just 3-of-20 for one of the worst shooting performances in the history of the NBA Playoffs.
Harden’s 0-of-15 start was the most missed shots in a row to start a game in playoff history. And of players who took at least 20 shots, only Karl Malone in 1997 and Kenyon Martin in 2003 had worse shooting performances than Harden in the postseason in the last 30 years.
Using the same defense that they employed on him in the first two games of the series, the Jazz sat on Harden’s left hip, showing him an open lane to the basket so long as he went right. It’s a strategy the Milwaukee Bucks used to some effect in the regular season, but the Jazz had been unsuccessful with it in Games 1 and 2.
The theory behind the defense is to prevent Harden from getting to his dominant left hand for drives or his patented step-back 3-pointer, and to force him to either take floaters or kick the ball out to less talented players. In Game 3, it worked to an extent. Harden couldn’t get his floater to go, and missed most of his 3-point attempts as well.
But to Harden’s credit, he stayed confident and came up clutch in the fourth quarter. After missing his first 15 shots, Harden went 3-of-5 from the field in the fourth, and scored 14 of his 22 points in the frame as the Rockets secured a crucial victory, 104-101. Now up 3-0, they have a chance to sweep in Game 4, and are all but assured a trip to the second round.
Also to Harden’s credit, he found ways to be productive even with his shot not falling. He still finished with 22 points, four rebounds, 10 assists and six steals,
After the game, Harden claimed he had no idea he was 0-15 at one point, acting shocked when he heard the stat from ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth in his postgame interview. While he may not have known the exact number, he clearly knew he was struggling shooting the ball, but said it didn’t change his mindset.
“I was aggressive,” Harden said. “They were doing a job of contesting my shots, and those are shots I shoot every single day. I’m gonna live with them. Game 4 doesn’t change, I’m gonna keep shooting the same shots.”