NBA teams defend James Harden like he's playing an entirely different sport. Every year brings a new gimmick. This season gave us the classic "what if we double-teamed him the moment he crosses half-court?"
Oklahoma City scoffs at those doomed gambits. Only two days after Harden roasted them for 37 points on 12-of-22 shooting, the Thunder made the bold decision to put Luguentz Dort on him. Alone. No traps. No gimmicks. Just Dort, all by his lonesome, tasked with playing the iceberg to Harden's Titanic in his playoff debut.
That doesn't even do Dort's inexperience justice. Thursday was the 37th NBA game he ever participated in. He couldn't legally drink until after the season was suspended in March. He has barely played more minutes in his career than Harden averages in a month. But it worked. Despite the loss, Dort locked Harden down for the overwhelming majority of the game. Late in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City's desperate comeback bid required offense-centric lineups. When Dort left the court for the final time, Harden had just 12 points on 2-of-13 shooting. Immediately afterward, Harden padded his numbers with nine quick points. He didn't miss a shot after Dort left the game. He barely made any with Dort hounding him. That vaunted step-back jumper? Dort contested it.
Yes, there will be positive regression. Harden makes plenty of contested shots. That's what MVPs do. But what stands out are the shots Harden didn't take. With Russell Westbrook out, Houston's overwhelming shooting parts the lane like the red sea. He should be able to drive at will. But he only took five 2-pointers in the entire game, one of which came after Dort's removal. That should surprise nobody that watched Dort all year. He's built like an actual iceberg, utterly immovable. Harden barely tried to drive. The outcomes when he did were rarely positive. Watch Dort force the kick out here...
On other occasions, Harden would try the drive, get denied, and then give up on the possession.
And then there were the plays the Dort blew up entirely. On this drive, he not only defends Harden but gets the block off of his pass.
On this possession, he starts on Harden, switches onto Danuel House, goes back to contest Harden at the basket, and then races out behind the arc to contest Ben McLemore.
Houston tried desperately to use those screens to free Harden from Dort's grip. They rarely worked because Dort didn't allow them to work. He navigated the floor as if handcuffed to Harden.
Even when a screen separated him from his mark for a moment, he hunted him down like a terminator.
Ultimately this isn't going to swing the series. Westbrook is going to return. Harden is going to find his points. The Thunder are already in a 2-0 hole. Oklahoma City's season is likely going to end in a week or so.
But Dort's future as an All-Defense-caliber stopper? That's just getting started. Oklahoma City locked Dort into a now-unfathomable four-year, $5.4 million contract during the hiatus. In all likelihood, he is going to be their starting shooting guard for the duration of that deal, and he's going to get better with experience. Typically, a player's best defense doesn't come in their first 1,000 minutes of NBA experience.
That's what's so tantalizing here. Two weeks ago, Dort stonewalled LeBron James in a blowout. His Thunder may have lost this game, but he took on arguably the most difficult defensive assignment in the NBA and acquitted himself wonderfully. Most rookies are terrible on defense, but he's done things as a 21-year-old that most veterans never even approach. If this is what he can do on defense now, just imagine what he's going to be when the Thunder are ready to contend for real in a few years.