The San Antonio Spurs entered their matchup with the Houston Rockets in the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs with a clear plan. It evolved and became more refined as the series progressed, but the general idea was this: Kawhi Leonard would chase James Harden over every screen and whichever one of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge were involved in the pick-and-roll would drop back to the paint, where they could use their long arms to alter shots at the rim.
In doing so, San Antonio took away the pull-up 3s and drives Harden lived on during the regular season, baiting him to instead settle for midrange pull-ups and floaters; the former being a shot he still rarely takes to this day and the latter being one he has historically struggled with.
The strategy worked.
Harden averaged 24.5 points per game in the series - almost five points fewer than his season average - on 41.4 percent shooting from the field and 30.8 percent from 3-point range.
"Everything falls on my shoulders," Harden said after missing nine of his 11 shot attempts in Game 6. "I take responsibility for it, both ends of the floor. It's tough, especially the way we lost at home for Game 6. But it happened and we move forward."
While the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference Finals, Harden did move forward by re-tooling his game in a way that would lead to him becoming perhaps the league's most unstoppable offensive force.
How exactly? Not by taking a higher percentage of his shots from midrange - that'll likely never happen, especially under Mike D'Antoni's watch - but by turning the floater that was once his greatest weakness into a strength.
In addition to knocking them down at a 50.0 percent clip this season, Harden has already made more floaters in 47 games than he did in 81 games in 2016-17 and 72 games in 2017-18. It's become a legitimate weapon for the seven-time All-Star.
|Season||Games||Floaters Made||Floaters Attempted||FG%|
It's still not a shot you'll see Harden make multiple times on a nightly basis, but it's one that makes him practically unguardable when the step-back 3-pointer he has become famous for is falling - and it has for most of this season. Particularly during his recent stretch of 30-point games, several teams have resorted to picking Harden up far beyond the 3-point line and pressing up on his left side in an effort to take his signature step-back away.
The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the teams to have adopted that approach. It led to sequences like this, in which Milwaukee took a page out of San Antonio's book and put their own spin on it by giving Harden a wide open lane to the basket:
Eric Bledsoe, who was Harden's primary defender for most of the game, admitted to doing as much afterwards, saying his focus was on keeping Harden off the 3-point line and forcing him to take 2-pointers.
"It wasn't even trying to stay in front of him," Bledsoe continued. "It was almost like, 'You can have the lane.'"
The difference now, of course, is Harden has that trusty floater he can go to against the drop coverages he once didn't have an answer for.
Harden drained five of his six floater attempts that game, including one in crunch time that turned it into a one-possession game. He did more of the same against the Toronto Raptors two weeks later, with five of his nine made field goals on the night being floaters.
Harden can do more than just score in those situations. Had Brook Lopez rotated over sooner to contest either of those floaters, he would've lobbed the ball to Clint Capela standing underneath the basket for a dunk. Had Giannis Antetokounmpo or Sterling Brown rotated over to take that option away, Harden would've gifted whichever one of his teammates was unguarded with a wide open 3-pointer.
In other words, Harden has developed an answer to every coverage he's likely to face.
What's funny is the Bucks actually did a better job of defending Harden than most teams have this season. An off night for him just isn't what it once was. In this case, he almost willed an under-manned Rockets team to a victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks with 42 points (13-30 FG), 11 rebounds and six assists.
Harden also turned the ball over nine times, but it didn't stop the Rockets from being neck-and-neck with the Bucks in his 40 minutes on the court.
It goes to show how complete of a player Harden has become since that nightmare of a series in 2017 and how one of the NBA's biggest stars continues to add to his game.
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