TORONTO – Mike D’Antoni beckoned James Harden over towards the Houston Rockets bench at one point early in Thursday’s game against the Toronto Raptors and had a question: "How do you want to play this quarter out?"
"He said: ‘Coach, I haven’t done anything. I’m just standing here," D’Antoni recalled post-game with a laugh. "So I said: ‘Well, then. Play.’"
Because Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is the man who introduced a new generation of basketball fans to an old-school, box-and-one defence during the NBA Finals — remember Stephen Curry’s description of it as ‘janky’ — conventional wisdom heading into Thursday’s meeting with Harden and the Rockets was that Nurse was going to conjure up some type of never-before-seen wizardry to clamp down on the NBA’s highest-scoring and most dynamic offensive player. Nobody, not even Harden, is going to match Wilt Chamberlain’s numbers but, well, the dude did score 60 points in three quarters on Nov. 30 and 50 against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday. That was his fourth 50-point game this season.
We’re not sure if a double-team necessarily constitutes a janky defence but that was the Raptors’ plan for Harden and it worked.
He ended up playing all 12 minutes of the first quarter… and took one shot. And a free-throw. He did a lot of standing outside the key. Walking around. Just over centre-court. Enjoying the company of whoever latched onto him. He had as many points in the quarter as he did steals. He had as many points as he did in the second quarter, when he played under seven minutes. Harden finished with a modest 23 points, attempting just five threes. Meh.
His teammates however… well, they attempted 50 other threes, making 19 of those including eight by Ben McLemore. Russell Westbrook? He was 0-for-6 and Harden was asked later if the Rockets are finally figuring out how to win with him as a passenger.
"Especially when we’re making shots," Harden said. "This is the first time we’ve seen this defence this year. The guys did a good job of moving bodies and getting ready to shoot."
You can make the case that Harden’s biggest contribution — other than accepting the double teams of OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Fred Van Vleet — was his defence. He finished with five steals and seven defensive boards. He had spurts where he was a pest for Pascal Siakam in the paint, particularly in the third quarter which ended with him under-going a concussion test after taking an elbow in the head.
"James gets overlooked for (his defence)," D’Antoni said. "He’s one of our better defenders, and as a post defender he’s one of the best in the league. When he’s on somebody he wants to stop? He carries such a burden that sometimes he has lapses, as would anybody who gets tired. But he’s a great defender… a very good defender. He took the challenge tonight."
Otherwise, it was a muted performance in front of an oddly docile crowd at Scotiabank Arena that included Drake, Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen. Where was the hate? The crowd emitted barely a murmur when Harden and Westbrook were introduced. The only time Harden got much of a reaction was late in the game when he swatted and pushed at Kyle Lowry with two minutes remaining.
"I didn’t know what they were going to do — triangle and two, box and one, whatever," said D’Antoni. "But the other guys stepped up and James is more than happy to draw the double team. If it was an open shot, we took it. And knocked them down.
"Tonight was a real double team, and they stayed on him and basically left us playing four on three. We haven’t seen it like that before."
"We were just trying to find the best open shot," said Danuel House, who had 16 points in 27 minutes. "Didn’t matter who would take it. We all just wanted to make the best basketball play. When you give NBA pros open looks like that… and especially with the amount of time we had…"
House let his voice trail off. This wasn’t a laugher, but it wasn’t exactly high drama either. And in the end D’Antoni even had time to joke about successfully challenging a foul call on Austin Rivers with 1:14 left. This is a Rockets team, remember, that wasn’t credited with a Harden dunk in what would turn out to be an overtime loss to the Spurs on Tuesday. The game officials ruled that D’Antoni took longer than the allowed 30 seconds to ask for a replay of the botched call on that night.
There would be no issue against the Raptors.
"You saw me," he said. "I was waving… weaving… almost off the ground like a helicopter. I was going after it this time. Thirty seconds? I did it in point-nine seconds. Might have been my quickest challenge, ever."
Challenges met. Challenges answered. That’s how the Rockets rolled on Thursday.