2018 Playoffs | Western Conference Semifinals: Rockets (1) vs. Jazz (5)

Utah Jazz committed to stopping James Harden, no matter how many players it takes

After film session, Jazz says slowing down MVP candidate is the primary concern after he scored 41 in Game 1

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

HOUSTON — Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale standing side-by-side seemed like a most appropriate set up as they entertained theories about if and how they can do anything to slow down James Harden in the Western Conference semifinals.

After watching the film from Harden’s 41-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist performance in Game 1, it’s pretty obvious that one man alone has no chance of slowing down the Houston Rockets’ superstar.

Not even for men ideally suited physically for the task as the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Crowder and the 6-6, 225-pound O’Neale appear to be.

Monday’s film study for the Jazz confirmed what their coach Quin Snyder thought in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s Game 1 loss, that it’s going to take a communal effort to even attempt to knock Harden out of his comfort zone.

And even then, there is no guarantee the Jazz will have any success against the man the entire basketball world has struggled with during what should soon be Harden’s first Kia MVP season.

So, without giving away any trade secrets, what’s the best advice Snyder can provide for a planned attack for Harden in Wednesday’s Game 2?

“You ask him to miss,” Snyder joked. “You say ‘Please James, will you miss this time down.’ And then you see if he’s magnanimous enough to do you a favor.”

Jokes aside, if the Jazz are indeed going to make this a series against the postseason’s No. 1 overall seed, they’ll have to start by figuring out a way to at least slow Harden down one way or another.

Allowing him to continue to impact games the way he has — he’s rung up two 40-point outings in these playoffs and over six games is averaging 31.0 points, 7.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds — is simply a recipe for disaster, for any team facing the Rockets.

That’s why Crowder, the seasoned veteran, and the rookie O’Neale are so important to the effort to curtail Harden’s effectiveness.

“Going into the series we said crossmatches were going to be a big thing,” O’Neale said, “so really everybody is going to have their chance to guard him and you just have to make it tough on him and take away those shots where he likes getting them.”

The Toyota Center floor was Harden’s playground in Game 1 as he dribbled and danced his way through the teeth of the Jazz defense at will, attacking them from all angles.

But the film revealed that Harden made as many tough shots, contests shots, as he did anything. So, it wasn’t all on the defense, or lack thereof. A lot of it was just a great offensive player doing what he always does.

“I give James Harden credit,” Crowder said. “He made a lot of tough shots with a hand in his face. But I felt like we still could have done more, and we felt like as a group we still could do more on him in iso situations. They also made threes in transition, which we want to take out of the game completely, we want to take the threes out of the game as much as possible.”

Good luck with that.

The Rockets have made 17 or more six times in franchise history, twice in this postseason and the sixth time being Sunday.

Harden was 7-for-12 from deep in Game 1, his handy work from distance fueling the entire attack for the Rockets, which brings the conversation right back to where it started for the Jazz.

Is there anything they can do to upset the order of things in Harden’s world?

“Look, there’s a lot of little things, that he’s seen, because whatever you do a great player is able to adjust,” Snyder said. “So, the value maybe is not something that you do consistently until he figures it out, but at least there’s an opportunity there to create some indecision for him. So those are the things you try to look at. And sometimes you have to stay committed to something. You may do something well and he attacks it even better. It doesn’t mean that what you are doing is necessarily wrong. But over time you get an indication of, whether analytically or otherwise, you do see certain.

“Every match up is a little different, too, so things that we need to do, that we can do, might be different than some things that other teams can do. You know, we may have to keep throwing fastballs and just position them better as opposed to throwing a curve or maybe a change up, too. And there’s your baseball analogy since we’re in Houston.”

For the men on the frontline of trying to slow Harden and the Rockets down, the analogies, while cute in theory, just don’t cut it.

Crowder has the experience of dealing with the challenge of trying to impede the progress of an elite player, having worked against LeBron James while he was with the Celtics, which was before he worked alongside the Cavaliers superstar easier this season before being traded in the deadline day roster purge in Cleveland.

He is well aware that what sound good in theory is often undone in the heat of the moment, especially when you are talking about an all-time great scorer.

“You’ve just got to make it tough for him, give him different looks and don’t let him get comfortable,” Crowder said. “You can’t let him get into a rhythm.”

Snyder is convinced that Harden’s rhythm, that vibe he plays with when he’s at his best, is what makes him so dangerous, so unique.

It’s what puts him in that elite category of all-time greats, a composition — usage rate, efficiency and assists — historically speaking, that ranks up there with the likes of LeBron, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

“Yeah, I think so,” Snyder said of the way it feels to prepare for Harden, without committing to a direct comparison to Jordan, Bird or James.

“Certainly, he’s a younger player so we’re talking about guys who over a longer period of time have … but he just keeps getting better. And that’s the thing to me that is really unique.

“It seems like, he’s artistic as you watch him play. It’s pure, you know. And I think whatever his style is, it’s Houston’s style, and he adapts to the situation. There’s an artistry to what he does on the court because he sees so many things that are going on and he has such an awareness … but certainly from a productivity standpoint and what he’s done with their team, you don’t see it.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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