James Harden has never been known for his speed, but a guard of his caliber will almost always take free points when an opponent presents them. The Milwaukee Bucks did just that early in Game 6 of their second-round series against Harden's Brooklyn Nets. Giannis Antetokounmpo got careless with the ball, so Harden, in a stationary position, took a swipe and came away with an easy steal. He had no Bucks in front of him, presenting a clear runway to the basket.
Now let's take a look at how Harden responds to that opportunity:
For a moment, Harden considers taking off for the transition layup, but quickly thinks better of it. He knows that on a bum hamstring, there's no way he'll be able to get up the court before the defense catches up, and even if he could, the re-injury risk on a dead-on sprint like that would seemingly be quite high. So he stops dead in his tracks, content to turn a live-ball turnover into half-court offense.
If you needed any confirmation of just how compromised Harden is right now, that moment was it. He doesn't feel capable of trying breakaway layups right now. In fact, he hasn't attempted a layup of any kind since returning to the lineup for Game 5. He just doesn't have the lift to do so.
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For most of his career, that would have been a major problem for Harden, Daryl Morey's greatest disciple. When playing for the Houston Rockets, Harden's game revolved almost entirely around three shots: pull-up 3s, layups and free throws. The last two go hand in hand and rely on some degree of explosion. In theory, a shooter like Harden should be able to make up for it behind the arc, but he's not a traditional spacer. He's attempted only one catch-and-shoot 3 in this series because he's so used to being able to generate all of his looks off the dribble.
All of this is to say that a less diversified Harden easily could have been useless for the Nets until fully recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the first four games of this series. But Harden scored 16 points and even kept the Nets afloat when Kevin Durant needed to rest on Thursday, and he did so thanks in large part to a shot that he only recently started to emphasize.
In nine seasons as a Rocket, only 13.8 percent of Harden's shots came from between 3-10 feet of the basket. Those aren't quite the dreaded long 2's Morey teams typically avoid, but once Harden gets that close to the basket, he typically tried to go all of the way to either finish with the layup or draw a foul. That percentage started to creep up in recent years and got as high as 17.7 percent last season, but in Brooklyn this year, 28.5 percent of his shots have come in that range between 3-10 feet of the basket.
Those floaters have become a key part of his offensive repertoire, and without his typical athleticism, they proved essential to the limited success he found against the Bucks in Game 6. When Brook Lopez is on the floor, the Bucks typically play fairly conservative drop-coverage on defense. He sinks as close to the basket as possible hoping to deny the layup. That suited Harden just fine in Game 6, though, because he had no intention of even attempting the layup. On this one, for instance, Harden rebounds his own missed 3 with Lopez planted right on the borderline of the restricted area. Harden only takes one dribble before going up with the floater, and that decisiveness prevented Lopez from contesting the shot:
Timing was again critical on his next floater attempt because Antetokounmpo was right on his tail. If he'd driven far enough into the paint, he'd have been trapped by Giannis from behind and Lopez in the front. So Harden tossed up the floater for two relatively easy points:
Giannis again gets caught behind Harden on this cut -- one of his few explosive moves of the night -- and fouls him as a result:
Harden likely prioritized this shot as a counter to defenses that mimicked the way Milwaukee plays. Extreme drop coverage became a problem for Harden in Houston, especially when he played without another perimeter star. The 2017 Spurs in particular found success dropping their big men and defending the pick-and-roll with only two players, taking away his kick-out passes and daring him to shoot in the mid-range. He wouldn't then. He is now.
That growth is paying off against the Bucks in more ways than one. That has become a reliable method of two-point scoring while injured is a bonus. In truth, it would have been used frequently in this series even if Harden was healthy to combat Lopez's drop coverage.
Harden isn't himself right now. He might not be again this postseason. But the Nets don't need him to be an MVP to make it past the Bucks. They just need him to be a reliable source of secondary shot-creation, especially when Durant goes to the bench. He did just that in Game 6. If his teammates do their part in Game 7, that floater could help carry the Nets into the Eastern Conference finals.