HOUSTON — A baby-faced, 20-year-old James Harden reported to training camp for his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009.
Way before “The Beard” persona emerged, he came off the bench while playing alongside rising stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The left-handed shooting guard also left an early impression on his more experienced teammate Thabo Sefolosha.
A decade later, the former teammates are now competing on rival Western Conference teams with the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets for the second straight postseason.
“He’s always been a helluva player,” said Sefolosha, who played three seasons with Harden from 2009-12 before being traded to Houston. “Even in OKC, with limited time, coming off the bench, he was really effective with his minutes, with his touches and you can see that now.
“The way he dissects the game, understands the defense and picks it apart — it’s pretty unique.”
During Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Sunday, Harden’s uniqueness was certainly on display as he led the Rockets to a 122-90 victory with 29 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. Sefolosha did defend him for six possessions, where Harden went 1-for-2 with four points against him.
However, Jazz players Ricky Rubio and Royce O’Neale guarded him for the majority of the night, where they displayed an untraditional method of checking the scoring champion by shading him hard to the right, daring him to create in the lane to prevent his highly effective step-back jumper.
In some ways it worked, as he did go 11-for-26 from the field with three turnovers and five personal fouls, but he still ended with double-digit assists.
“I’ve seen literally every defense you can possibly see, so it’s just a matter of adjusting and continue to communicate with the guys and what spots they need to be in, and that’s pretty much it,” Harden said after the victory.
For a guy who finished the regular season with one of the greatest offensive outputs in league history, averaging 36.1 points per game, the Jazz could live with his performance but not the 32-point loss, which was the second-worst playoff loss in franchise history.
Defending Harden in that fashion was the first time they had tried that strategy and the team revisited the method during Monday’s film study, where guys didn’t panic as they are trusting in Snyder’s system.
“It’s a game plan that’s not just for one game but for the whole series and we’ve got to do it over and over again,” Rubio said. “We’ve got to make it tough for one of the best players right now in the league and he’s a great scorer.
“We have to get to know the game plan better,” he continued. “I think as the series goes on we’re going to get better, we’re going to make adjustments, we’re going to do this and that. We have one of the best if not the best coach at making adjustments.”
Throughout Harden’s 10-year tenure in the NBA, he has gone from Sixth Man of the Year to the league’s Most Valuable Player. The former third overall pick out of Arizona State University will continue to be a handful for Jazz players to stay in front of with his strength and ability to draw fouls, but now that the nervousness is out of their system there will be some adjustments done before the start of Game 2 on Wednesday.
“It was the first time doing it to that extent,” Sefolosha said. “Things worked, things didn’t work and we’re going to keep working on it and see exactly what we want to do next game, but I think we’ve got to work on it a little bit more. It’s only Game 1 and I think there’s a lot of good and bad that we can take from that.”