James Harden Can Pass the Ball (Just Make Sure You Catch It)

“James is so good at delivering the ball,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said.

His teammates just have to be ready to catch it, which — at this late stage of the season — they usually are. Consider the first three possessions of the Rockets’ 115-111 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday night. Possession No. 1: Harden shovels a two-handed pass to Clint Capela, who finds Ryan Anderson for an open look from the 3-point line. Possession No. 2: Harden slings a one-handed pass to Trevor Ariza, who drives for a layup. Possession No. 3: Harden dribbles to draw defenders before kicking to Ariza at the 3-point line.


Harden, far left, passed as two Thunder players tried to guard him during Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Sunday.

Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Anderson and Ariza misfired on their 3-point attempts, but Harden was clearly working to engage his teammates. Anderson wound up struggling in the win, shooting 1 of 8 from the field. He missed all seven of his 3-point attempts. But Harden never abandoned him. In fact, he appeared determined to help lift Anderson out of his malaise.

“He throws it anywhere and everywhere,” the Rockets’ Eric Gordon said. “His thing is, he continues to do it throughout the game, which a lot of players don’t do.”

After averaging 7.5 assists a game last season, Harden led the league by averaging 11.2 assists a game this season. A big chunk of the credit ought to go to D’Antoni, whose spread-the-floor offense has shaped the Rockets into a title contender in his first season here. He also shifted Harden, a shooting guard in prior seasons, to point guard. The move ensured that Harden had the ball in his hands as often as possible. But by initiating the offense, Harden also found that he was able to get his teammates more involved.

There are occasions when Harden tries, perhaps, to do too much. He set a single-season N.B.A. record by committing 464 turnovers. (Westbrook finished with 438, which left him second on the list of single-season leaders, according to Basketball Reference.) But D’Antoni did not mind at all. He compared turnovers to missed shots: Is there really that much difference?

“He’s not meaning to do it,” D’Antoni said. “He’s trying to make 15 assists. And you know what? I can coach him to mediocrity. I can tell him: ‘You know what, James? Don’t do all that. Just pass the ball over here and don’t do anything tricky.’ You can’t do that. You try to coach them to be great and let him be great, and he is great. If there are a few turnovers, there are a few turnovers.”

The team’s confidence grew out of that balance over the course of the season, and the Rockets are thriving through the first two games of the playoffs.

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