Raptors eager to take on Herculean James Harden challenge

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) controls the ball as Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) defends during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – Houston Rockets superstar James Harden is the most potent offensive weapon in basketball.

He leads the league in scoring, averaging an outrageous 39.5 points per game, and has already played nine games that’s seen him score 40 points or more. He’s also dropped 60 points in a game in just over 30 minutes of action across only three quarters and, most recently, has proven he can go for a 50 spot, even when he shoots below 30 per cent from the field and goes 4-for-20 from three-point range.

In short, the man is a veritable scoring machine and there’s essentially nothing anyone can do stop him.

But that doesn’t mean the Toronto Raptors aren’t going to try.

The Rockets will be making their annual visit to Scotiabank Arena Thursday night and while the Raptors know they have their hands full with Harden, they seem eager to take on the test of slowing him down.

“Twice a year is what we get them, and every year, we’ve got to drop everything we know and think about and try to put something together to slow [Harden] down as best we can,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “Go out there and attack the challenge.”

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Coming off a loss that snapped a seven-game win streak on Tuesday to the Miami Heat, the Raptors obviously don’t want to begin a trend in the other direction with second consecutive defeat Thursday. That will begin with a game plan for Harden, which begs another question: What is it?

“You tell them all the obvious things: Get your hands back. Don’t bite on his pump fakes. Try to limit his free-throw attempts. And then when you foul him and he goes to the line, you don’t get too upset about it,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “It’s kind of what happens out there. You just do the best you can with it.”

Harden is great at many offensive skills, such as his patented step-back three-pointer and his drives into the lane wherein he’ll kick out and find open shooters along the perimeter when defences collapse around him.

What Harden is probably best at – a true master of, so to speak – is drawing fouls.

As previously mentioned, in the last game Houston played, Harden managed to reach the coveted 50-point plateau again, but only shot 11-for-38 from the field and 4-for-20 from deep. How was Harden able to score that much despite his abysmal shooting? He was a perfect 24-for-24 from the free-throw line.

This is Harden’s true signature move. Because of his incredible handles, the threat of his step-back three and his quickness and strength, Harden can consistently get into the paint and pick up fouls where he’s able to convert at the free-throw line.

His 14.9 free-throw attempts per game lead the league by a wide margin and is one of the key reasons why he’s so hard to stop.

“…You’ve just gotta be active, in his face, send multiple bodies and defences on him and make those shots as difficult as you can and not foul him,” said Norman Powell.

Added Nurse: “It’s hard to stop. It’s hard to stop. There’s no doubt about it.”

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While everyone can’t dispute its effectiveness, Harden’s style is a point of contention among those who are looking to be more entertained by a game. Stopping play continually to see someone repeatedly attempt a couple of free throws isn’t necessarily riveting for a lot of fans.

To players, though, watching a great player go to work is fun, regardless.

“I haven’t met a basketball player that doesn’t appreciate it for what it is,” said VanVleet. “It’s casual people that watch the game that are tied into some fantasy for what they think the game is about. I appreciate what he brings to the table. The ones who are in it every day, we know what James brings to the table. Nothing but respect there.”

Of course, Harden isn’t the only guy on the Raptors will be occupied with Thursday. The Rockets also have another former MVP in Russell Westbrook, a man who has averaged a triple-double in each of the last three seasons and is just about a couple of rebounds shy, per game, right now from doing it again.

Westbrook came across to Houston in a blockbuster trade in the off-season that saw the Rockets deal Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for him. There was plenty of skepticism at the time over whether Westbrook and Harden could co-exist – even though they did play together earlier in their careers in Oklahoma City – but it’s a case of so far, so good for Houston who owns a 13-7 record and is in fifth place in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

“I kind of like what they’re doing with Westbrook this year,” said Nurse. “I think they’ve figured out a unique way for him to play alongside of [Harden]. I give D’Antoni and their staff credit for blending that together. It’s two extraordinary talents on the same team again. That’s worth the price of a ticket, probably.”

Both Westbrook and Harden are luminary stars who can each take over a game individually and present unique challenges that essentially boil down to one tactic if Toronto wants to limit them.

“Guard them. That’s the game plan. You’ve got to guard them,” said Powell. “I think they’ve done a great job of being able to mesh well together and play off one another. … But we’ve just gotta go out there and sit down and guard and play the style of gritty defence we’ve been playing and give ourselves a chance.”

On Thursday night it really probably will be as simple as that.

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