James Harden closed out 2010 with the best statistical month of his early season-plus career.
Harden is coming off a December in which he averaged 13.9 points, 46.7 percent shooting, 1.3 steals, 2.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 27.5 minutes over 16 games.
He scored in double figures in all but two games. In the two games he did not, he recorded six assists in a Dec. 8 win over Minnesota and had three steals the following game in a victory over New Orleans.
Steadily, Harden has adapted to his role as a sparkplug off the bench. His offensive numbers, and the manner in which he’s become more assertive on that end, detailed that. But the numbers he’s recorded on the defensive end – he had at least one steal in all but four games last month – don’t do justice to the strides he’s continued to make as a defender.
“He wants to be a good player on the defensive end and that’s how you get minutes,” Head Coach Scott Brooks said. “You have to be able to defend your position and I think that’s improved a lot this year.”
Harden’s 27.5 minutes in the month of December were the most he logged in any month as a pro and were a direct result of his effectiveness on both ends of the floor.
Brooks attributed some of Harden’s defensive improvements to the film sessions he has with the coaching staff, namely assistant coach Rex Kalamian. If you arrive at the Oklahoma City Arena early enough on game days, chances are you’ll see Kalamian working with Harden on his offensive repertoire. But it’s the behind the scenes work they put it, either before or after practice or on the team plane, where they get to sit down and analyze game film.
Every day, Harden said he talks to Kalamian about different defensive matchups and an opposing player’s tendencies. When he checks into games for the defensive stalwart Thabo Sefolosha, Harden said he’s already gone through a mental checklist of his assignment. He said he’s learned to visualize what an opponent might do.
“A shooter, a guy who can knock down threes I know I’ve got to run him off the line,” he said. “Or if he’s a driver, close him out short and make him shoot contested jumpers.”
The biggest improvement Harden has made as a defender has been staying in front of the ball, something Brooks said is easier said than done.
“That’s one of the hardest things in this league because there’s so many quick, athletic players that are in attack mode,” Brooks said. “He’s doing a better job of containing the basketball and contesting shots. It’s just basic man-to-man defense, but it’s hard to do and it’s something you have to be mentally tough at because you have to do it a lot at those positions. Ones, twos and threes are dynamic athletes that attack the rim but he’s improved in that area a lot defensively.”
In the last week Harden has found himself matched up with All-Stars like Atlanta shooting guard Joe Johnson, Denver point guard Chauncey Billups and even Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki for a few possessions.
Over the months, Brooks has seen Harden making fewer mistakes defensively, leading him to say the second-year guard has been more of a two-way player than he was a season ago.
“You want to go into every possession and don’t make a mistake because when you make a mistake the defense has to help you and then it’s a trickle-down effect – everyone on the backside has to step up and make a play,” Brooks said. “If you stop your man and there’s no mistakes there, it helps everybody out.”
In turn, Harden said he’s trying to make more plays as a defender.
“I’m trying to create something for our offense on the defensive end, whether it’s making a steal, taking a charge. I just want to guard and contain my man for 24 seconds or however long it may be.”
Added Kevin Durant: “He’s always a guy that uses his hands very well. He gets steals, he’s containing the ball and he’s using his feet very well right now and I think that he’s playing much harder. His confidence is up, which is what we need him to be very confident on both ends and the last 10 games I think he’s playing very, very well.”
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