Lowe: James Harden is breaking the blueprint that embarrassed him

What James Harden has done to the Utah Jazz through two blowouts goes back to his greatest humiliation — Harden’s meltdown, and Houston’s collective disintegration, against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2017 conference semifinals.

Harden eviscerated the Spurs in Game 1 of that series — a 27-point Rockets win that seemed to announce Houston as the primary threat to Golden State’s Western Conference hegemony. San Antonio won four of the next five games — the last three without Tony Parker, and the clincher without Kawhi Leonard.

The Spurs won that game in Houston by 39 points. Harden finished with 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting and six turnovers before fouling out. For months, he could not discuss the game with his closest confidantes. They would not dare broach the subject.

“It was like when you were a kid and you saw your parents fighting, no one would ever want to bring it up,” says Daryl Morey, Houston’s general manager. “No one could process it.” Gregg Popovich, San Antonio’s coach and president, approached Morey after the game to congratulate him on Houston’s season and express astonishment about what had just unfolded. “I don’t know what happened,” Morey recalls Popovich telling him. “That was strange.”

Houston’s brain trust attributed the collapse to fatigue from Harden’s pursuit of the MVP, abetted by Mike D’Antoni’s famously short rotations.

Harden was surely tired. He tweaked his diet and fitness regimen after that series. But the Spurs also unveiled a template for defending Harden that would spread across the league. It was simple: When Clint Capela set a pick for Harden, Capela’s man was to plant himself near the hoop and lie in wait for Harden.

They would not switch. They would not trap, exposing an easy slip pass to Capela. They would meet Harden at the restricted area and wager they could at least disrupt layups and lob passes. They would foist indecision onto him. They knew Harden would not accept the shots they were giving him; floaters and long 2s were verboten in Houston. It worked.

It was the lowest point in Harden’s career. He transformed it into a turning point — the catalyst for a reinvention that happened so gradually, piece-by-piece, you almost didn’t notice Harden becoming a completely different player.

After that Spurs series, Harden went about adding a floater. If top defenses were going to concede that shot, Harden would have to take it.

This season, he mastered it. Harden has attempted more than twice as many floaters as he did a season ago, and he has hit almost half of them, per Cleaning The Glass — an elite number.

The next step was more radical: eliminate the need for a screen altogether. “We used to talk about the screen as an escort for a double-team,” Morey says. “Why even give the defense the option?”

Harden was already a very good isolation player, but he would have to stretch the math beyond what anyone had dreamed possible to render the pick-and-roll — basketball’s staple play almost since the peach basket — obsolete. Enter the step-back 3 — an isolation worth three points if it goes in, which it has about 40 percent of the time this season.

Harden has drained 240 step-back triples in 2018-19. Stephen Curry led the league in total 3s with between 261 and 286 for three straight seasons from 2012-13 through 2014-15. Just making that many 3-pointers was revolutionary four seasons ago. Making that many step-backs was not a thing that existed in the NBA’s brainspace.

The threat of the step-back forced defenders into pressing Harden 30 feet from the rim. That made them easy pickings for a blow-by.

Harden had warped math, and opened new possibilities for Houston. Instead of having Capela screen around the 3-point arc, the Rockets can now station him at the dunker spot — along the baseline, at the edge of the paint — at the start of possessions. That doesn’t sound important, but in talking to opposing players and coaches, it has changed everything.

The pick-and-roll lob dunk is a dance of intricate timing. The ball handler must wait for his target to rumble into position. That delay gives the defense a chance to catch up. Any hiccup in cadence — any miscommunication — and the window for the lob closes.

Plopping Capela in the dunker spot dispenses with those fraught 30 feet of prelude. He is there already, feet planted, primed to cram.

Opponents have grappled with this strange new geometry. The Bucks, as our Tim MacMahon detailed, fared best with an exaggerated variant of the Spurs’ method several teams — including Utah in this series — have imitated: climb atop Harden’s left shoulder to take away the step-back and force him right, slot Capela’s man in front of the rim, and hope to coax Harden into floaters — or deflect any lob pass.

Note all three Houston shooters set up to Harden’s left. In one sense, that makes life hard for Brook Lopez; if he steps away from Capela to barricade the rim, there is no teammate behind him to take Capela.

But the Bucks probably didn’t mind this alignment. Driving with his right hand and then passing across to the left side is one of the trickiest passes for Harden — as it would be for lots of lefties. It requires a less natural throwing motion — almost a backhand. Harden doesn’t get as much pace on those passes, or throw them with his usual accuracy:

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