James Harden was my pick for regular season MVP. His combination of usage, playmaking, efficiency and team success gave him the edge over Russell Westbrook, in my estimation. That said, his tendency to sleepwalk on defense was on full display in Game 3 in Oklahoma City.
I understand his offensive burden is extraordinary. But watch as Harden simply fails to react to Victor Oladipo charging downhill towards the rim. His mere flatfooted presence is enough to force a pass to an already-cutting Andre Roberson along the baseline. Harden's futile swipe at the ball looks like the product of years of feigning defensive effort. The lack of spacing caused by Robeson's inability to shoot only matters if his defender is willing to move.
In this next clip, Harden is conserving his energy on another reluctant 3-point shooter, Jerami Grant. For his part, Grant has proven capable when willing to launch (37.7% on just 1.5 attempts per game during the regular season). Harden starts out the possession strong, camping out in the paint to deter a Westbrook drive. He even closes hard on the Grant corner three attempt! However, finishing a defensive possession means sustaining that effort. Harden, feeling like his job is done, watches upright as Roberson grabs an offense board and dishes to a streaking Grant for an easy bucket at the rim.
This third play features Harden blowing by Roberson, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. After making the layup, Harden jogs back on defense. A made bucket should never turn into a transition opportunity for the other team, but Harden's nonchalance and lack of communication leads to an uncontested dunk for Grant. His lack of defensive effort completely negates his offensive brilliance in this clip. But, if I let that clip continue running, Harden hits an ISO step-back three-pointer in Taj Gibson's face on the next possession. Such is the James Harden experience.
To be fair, in the ten minutes Harden was on the bench, the Rockets defense was absolutely torched to the tune of 136.6 points per 100 possessions, compared to 116.8 points per 100 possessions when Harden played (still horrendous). Clearly, Harden is not the only problem defensively for this team, and nobody is asking for him to be a lockdown perimeter defender. But, a little bit of consistent effort would go a long way in helping his team make a deep playoff run.