After A Tough Year, Harkless Gets Back To Setting The Tone
It didn’t take long for Moe Harkless to put his stamp on Wednesday night’s 97-92 victory versus the Celtics at TD Garden in Boston. After less than three minutes had elapsed in the third quarter, Harkless poked the ball away from a driving Al Horford, secured the steal and streaked down the court for the transition dunk. It’s the kind of play that is becoming more and more common from the 6-9 forward, and served as a theme for how he’s trying to conduct himself on the court after the All-Star break.
“Kind of set the tone,” said Harkless. “They got a lot of guys over there that can do a lot of different things, score in a lot of different ways, so just go out there and make an impact from the start and hopefully build off that. I’m going to try to do that every night, set the tone defensively and everything else just fall into place.”
After struggling to find consistency on either end of the court for much of the season, things finally seem to be falling into place for Harkless, who has averaged 13.0 points on 56 percent shooting from the field, 7.8 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.3 blocks in Portland’s first four games after the All-Star break. He’s struggled with pain his his surgically repaired left knee since suffering an injury in March last year, and says he’s only now started to feel both healthy and comfortable on the court.
— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 28, 2019
“I just feel like I’ve been a lot more active,” said Harkless of his recent run of games. “I’ve been feeling a lot better out there, a lot more healthy. It’s been a process. It’s been a tough year so far but I think I’m feeling my best I’ve felt so far this year. I just feel more comfortable doing a lot of things that I was able to do last year.”
When Harkless rattles off the list of activities he was unsure of pulling off this season, it’s not hard to understand why he’s looked out of sorts for much of the 2018-19 campaign. But between treatment and time, Harkless is back to trusting his body, and the results have been striking.
“I kind of wasn’t comfortable doing a lot of things, like cutting hard, making quick moves,” said Harkless. “Even jumping was one of the things I wasn’t really comfortable with for most of the season. Feeling a lot better now, so just trying to stick with that.”
For Harkless’ teammates, the difference in how he’s looked on the court the last few weeks has been noticeable. Just how healthy Harkless has been this season is something of a mystery, but the people who know him best both personally and professionally have noticed a difference, which is probably the best indication that he’s finally getting back to the player who was instrumental in the Trail Blazers’ late-season run in 2017-18.
“For him, to see him being healthy is really kind of nice,” said Al-Farouq Aminu. “I feel like somethings we forget about stuff like that. Just for me personally, he’s a real talent. Injuries kind of held him back a little bit and to see him hitting his groove is nice.”
"We kept our composure, we got stops when we needed one & we made plays down the stretch." @Moe_Harkless talks to @BrookeOlzendam in tonight's @Biofreeze Top Performance Review. pic.twitter.com/xZviJo3fco
— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 28, 2019
Between Harkless’ lackluster play this season, the ascendance of Jake Layman and the addition of Rodney Hood, there had been growing discontent among fans about Harkless remaining in the starting lineup. But even though his play might not have warranted remaining in the starting five, his teammates and head coach Terry Stotts have been steadfast in their support for Harkless, an approach that has paid off in the first four games of a brutal seven-game trip.
“We all gonna have our times when we get criticized,” said Damian Lillard. “People gonna point out stuff that we didn’t do well, we should have did this or did that, but we support each other. From top to bottom, if somebody is struggling or not playing really well and then when they start playing well, we there to support them in that same situation.”
If Harkless is able to continue the strong play he’s exhibited since the All-Star break for the duration of the season, Portland’s chances of avoiding the fate that has befallen them the last two postseasons improves greatly, especially with the recent additions of Hood and Enes Kanter. Granted, he’ll have to prove he can bring the same level of focus and consistency for more than a four-game stretch, but if he’s able to continue to set the tone on defense as he did versus the Celtics for the rest of the regular season and into the postseason, enduring his struggles through the first two-thirds of the season would end up being a small price to pay.
“I think over the break we talked about kind of the way we’ve got to play moving forward, preparing ourselves for April,” said Harkless. “I think that’s something that I could take charge of on (the defensive) end of the floor, just setting the tone. I have the ability to do it. I think guys look to me sometimes on that end of the floor, so it’s just something I’ve wanted to lead by example.”