Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 2: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Utah Jazz on February 2, 2019 at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

The formula for defending James Harden? The Jazz are looking for it as they prepare for Game 1 in Houston

by Aaron Falk

The motion was unmistakable. The players on the court hadn’t even finished shaking hands when Patrick Beverley found Jae Crowder, the Clippers guard swinging an imaginary ball up and under an imaginary arm in an exaggerated move that left no doubt what was being discussed between two fierce competitors.

Beverley, the former Houston Rocket, was offering up his thoughts on how to defend James Harden.

“I’m sure some Houston Rockets may watch this,” Crowder said later during a TV interview. “So I won’t say too much. … It was just a game plan he thought worked.”

Like everyone else’s, though, Beverley’s plan for stopping Harden is a theory. Stopping the reigning MVP is an idea that really only exists in the abstract. The Houston star is averaging a league-best 36.6 points per game this season. He has hit the 50-point mark nine times. He averaged 11 free throws a night.

“Is there a formula?” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said when asked about defending Harden. “Looking for it. If there’s one, let me know. Hopefully, we’ll find it.”

That’s the task at hand as the Jazz settle into Houston for Sunday night’s Game 1 against Harden and the Rockets.

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell spent time with Harden this offseason. The two players filmed a commercial together. They played in a charity softball game together. And Mitchell spent hours watching and re-watching last year’s second-round matchup between the Jazz and Rockets.

“I got to the point where I kind of memorized what was going to happen,” he said.

As Utah and Houston prepare for this rematch, plenty has changed, especially for the Rockets. Mitchell and Gobert are a year older and more poised. Houston is missing the long arms of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to slow Mitchell down on the perimeter.

But the similarities are too big to go unnoticed.

“Who they are, still, is James,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “There’s no better player in the league. That’s not something that needs to be discussed or debated.”

The Jazz will try to limit the superstar guard with a variety of looks.

“It’s going to be a matter of the team,” Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio said. “He’s one of the best scorers, not just his year, ever. He has a unique game. There is no player like him in the league who plays as much 1-on-1 and hits step-back 3s like he does.

“You think about it, most of them are off the dribble. We want to limit that. Just make it tough. We know he’s going to score. He’s going to take shots. But we have to make it tough on him over and over and over again.”

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