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James Harden vs. Utah Jazz: How to defend one of the greatest scorers in NBA history

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder delivered the perfect description of Houston Rockets guard James Harden’s style of play following their Game 1 loss in the second round of the 2018 playoffs.

"He's artistic the way he plays,” Snyder explained. “It's pure. There’s an artistry to what he does on the court. ... He's got such an awareness."

Utah would fall to Houston in five games in that series but now lo and behold, the Jazz will try their best to ruin that same artist’s next showcase with the Jazz and Rockets set for a first-round matchup to kick off the 2019 playoffs. Even in triumph, Harden anticipated running into those guys again.

“Unbelievable,” Harden praised Utah following the series. “Especially when nobody expected them to be in the situation they’re in right now.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) hugs Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) after the Jazz lost Game 5 of the NBA playoffs at the Toyota Center in Houston on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. The Jazz lost 102-112.
Houston guard James Harden (13) hugs Utah's Joe Ingles (2) after the Jazz lost Game 5 of the NBA playoffs at the Toyota Center in Houston on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. The Jazz lost 112-102.

"The sky is the limit for them. Obviously, they’ve got a great new future with Donovan and some great pieces to go around them, and obviously coach (Quin) Snyder is a really good coach, so keep building and we’ll see what happens.”

The Jazz and Rockets split their four-game regular season series, 2-2, but all those games were played ahead of the All-Star break. Harden, the reigning MVP, has been on one of the greatest offensive runs in league history while averaging 36.1 points per game, which is the eighth-highest single-season scoring average ever.

Against the Jazz, his regular season numbers were slightly lower than his average with 33.5 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting while making 6.0 turnovers to his 4.8 assists. However, he did average 7.3 rebounds.

In Houston’s two wins, Harden put up 45.0 points compared to his 22.0 points in the Jazz wins.

Utah suffered a 125-98 loss to Houston on Feb. 2, which was its most recent game against the Rockets, where Harden burned it for 43 points for his 26th straight gamewith at least 30 points. Harden’s streak ended at 32 games, which was the second-longest in NBA history behind only Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert knows the significance of Harden’s record-breaking season and is accepting recommendations on how to tame the Rockets superstar.

“Is there a formula? We’re looking for it,” Gobert told reporters following Friday’s practice. “If you have one, let me know, but hopefully we find it.

“The goal is like with any very good player, to make him uncomfortable,” he continued. “To make him work, to make him work for everything he gets. That’s the most important thing and whether it’s James Harden or any very good offensive player in the league we want to try to limit things and make it a little more difficult for him.”

Despite those stellar regular season performances, Harden now faces pressure to prove he can continue them in the postseason. He averaged 28.0 points, 7.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds in five second-round playoff games against Utah last season but shot just 40.4 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from 3 with Royce O’Neale and Dante Exum helping slow down the offensive wizard.

Utah’s game plan was to contest his shots with length and guarding him closer on the perimeter. Donovan Mitchell was also forcing the left-handed scorer to use his right hand.

Now, the Jazz will be without Exum, who remains out indefinitely after undergoing right knee surgery, so guys like O’Neale, Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder will have to step up as much as possible with an entire team effort. Utah finished the season with the second-best defensive rating (105.2) behind only Milwaukee.

“Obviously, who they are is still James and there’s no better player in the league, that’s not something that even needs to be discussed or debated,” Snyder said. “At the same time, for us, we’re trying to do the things that will make us successful. Some of them are different, they’re a different team, we’re different.”

Mitchell listed preparation and experience among the biggest differences. He’s no longer the wide-eyed rookie trying to figure things out, but more so a rising star trying to follow up on last year’s playoff success.

The Jazz-Rockets series is expected to be physical, but the familiarity on both sides leaves few surprises, even with Harden who can go off at any time.

“It helps that we’ve played this team 13 times in the last two years so I think our mentality is we understand what James wants to do, what Chris (Paul) wants to do, who are the X factors, what we have to do on offense and just as far as that game plan we’re coming in with a little more poise and understanding,” Mitchell said. “Last year, we won Game 6 (against OKC), had one day to prepare then came in that next day, so now we have a little more time to prepare and focus on what we want to focus on and understand what takeaways to take away from this season because yeah, we were 2-2 against them but they had some guys out and they weren’t the same team they are today.

“So, we’ve got to understand that they’re a different team but also the same in different ways as well.”