Trail Blazers have made James Harden disappear

Trail Blazers have made James Harden disappear
April 24, 2014, 5:00 pm

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives during the third quarter as Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews (2) defends in game 1 of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center.

(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Trail Blazers' 2-0 lead over Houston in the first round of the NBA playoffs can be summed up by two shooting percentage numbers: 29.8 and 59.3.


The former belongs to Houston all-star guard James Harden, who has been rendered virtually useless in this series. The latter belongs to Blazers all-star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a career-defining moment so far in these playoffs by averaging 44.5 points per game on a shake-your-head 35-of-59 shooting.


If this trend continues Portland is headed for a sweep with game 3 at the Moda Center Friday night followed by game 4 at home on Sunday.


Should Harden return to his regular season shooting percentages of 45.6, Houston would have a fighting chance to push the series deeper. But for that to happen, the Rockets must figure out a way to free him up for better shots because right now, the Blazers have him on lock down.


“I’m pleased with his shooting percentage," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said today of Harden. "We need that to continue. He’s going to get his shots. He’s going to get however many shots he gets and we just have to continue to understand that he’s going to make some tough ones and we just have to guard the next time."


So far, Harden, who averaged 30.3 points per game against the Blazers during the regular season, has appeared dazed and confused both by his role in the offense and by Portland making his life miserable at the offensive end. In addition to shooting poorly, Harden has nine turnovers in the series. When center Dwight Howard gets rolling, Harden appears lost on offense, unable to feed off of the all-star center's momentum.


Drawing most of the duty on Harden is Portland guard Wesley Matthews, who said he's tried to make life hard on Harden at both ends of the floor but also shared the credit for containing him.


“It’s team defense," Matthews said. "It really is. I can’t take all the credit for it."


Stotts, however, said Matthews has done a good job on Harden by being physical and in his face.


“He doesn’t give him a lot of space," Stotts said. "I think that’s probably the first thing. He’s close to him. He’s bodying him. As many touches as he gets he’s such a threat to shoot, to drive, to draw fouls, to get pick and rolls. And the fact that he’s into him, and taking away some of that space is probably the most important thing.”


On the other side, Aldridge is making Harden pay dearly for his lack of production.


Houston did a good job of forcing Aldridge to take jumpers and fade-away shots in game 2 as opposed to posting up at will like he did in game 1. But it didn't matter. Aldridge lit up the Rockets from outside.


“You can tell his approach, he’s really dialed in," Stotts said. "He’s playing big. He’s really taking it upon himself to do all of these things. Give him all the credit. He’s been wanting this moment for a long time and he’s really rising to the challenge.”


With Aldridge hitting at a high clip, the Rockets are finding it difficult to get their transition game going.


“That’s tough for us to get out in transition and do how we play if we can’t get stops,” Harden said.


Harden downplayed his poor shooting saying "it's basketball." But clearly Houston can't win many basketball games with its best perimeter player clanking shots all evening.


That has to change in order for Houston to get back into this series. Or, Aldridge has to come back down to earth.


But even if the latter happens, expect Aldridge to keep firing until he finds his groove again.


“The fact that the players encourage him [to keep shooting] is they know how important he is to our team and how him being on the court makes other players better," Stotts said. "We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. And if he misses a shot or two, we need him to be aggressive. And if he makes, if he misses, he misses. But the most important thing is that he’s a aggressive for us.”