For a couple games, nobody knew what to expect of James Harden in a Houston Rockets uniform. We knew he could play — Sixth Man of the Year, Olympic gold medalist — but the setting with him as the man and not a playmaking third option was going to be very different.
The result was a 37- then 45-point game to open the season. James Harden had arrived.
Then, NBA defenses adjusted. Harden was 5-of-15 Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets who stuck Andre Iguodala — one of the league’s best perimeter defenders — on him then brought help (often Kenneth Faried). The result was 15 points and two assists to six turnovers. It’s not unlike what Portland did in the Rockets previous game with Nicolas Batum, and the result was 24 Harden points but on 24 shots. He has shot 33.3 percent in the last two games.
Harden’s freedom to attack is gone and both he and the Rockets will need to adapt now. He has to grow into the role as the No. 1 option, his teammates need to see how to work better with him, coach Kevin McHale needs to run plays that put him in a position to succeed.
The first adaptation falls to Harden: He can’t hesitate. After watching Harden’s shots again from his last two games (on Synergy Sports), you notice that his natural inclination was to catch the ball and survey the land then shoot or attack, but with the long and athletic defenders he faced that just gave them time to close on him and contest jumpers, to limit his options. He needs a plan and to attack more quickly. He started to do that more near the end of the Nuggets game.
Harden is still very effective in transition (64.7 percent shooting in that situation). The Rockets are running at a pretty fair clip this season but more transition is good, as is more Harden cutting and working off the ball.
His bread and butter is still the ball handler on the pick-and-roll and you can see the Rockets are still trying to figure things out. That’s something Harden admitted to Fran Blinebury of NBA.com.
“Even though we didn’t play well, it’s still just our fourth game together,” Harden said. “As the games go on, we’ll get better and it’s just the fact that we haven’t played together, we haven’t had a training camp or have time to really put in some sets, so we’re kind of figuring things out as we go.”
Harden is figuring things out, too. He has not had to be in this role and had to have elite defenders and double teams coming at him whenever he steps on the court. And things do not get easier for him with Memphis and Tony Allen plus Miami and LeBron James coming up in the next week for the Rockets.
It’s a process. One that is just getting started in Houston.