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The James Harden Pick-and-Roll Is Nightmare Fuel for Defenders

What other playoff moves are keeping defenses up at night?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The most unstoppable move I ever saw in a basketball game I was playing in belonged to this guy named Ant. He was an older dude. We met when I was 26 and he was 36 or 37, I think, and we played in the same pickup games at the same gym for about nine years.

Ant was, by nearly all measures, a fantastic basketball player. He could read a defense. He could run an offense. He wasn’t very tall — maybe 5-foot-8 — but he was remarkably strong and also very athletic, so he could rebound with guys 6, 7, 8 inches taller than him. He played stout on-the-ball defense. He shot what felt like 70 percent from 3. He had good game instincts and better game reflexes. And he was incredibly competitive. He was the kind of player where, no matter who was on the other side — high school players, college players, park stars, soon-to-be felons, whatever — if he was on your team you were like, “We got Ant. We got a shot. We’re gonna be fine.” Were I to line up all of the people I ever played basketball with and try to form a superteam, he would, without question, be my first pick. That’s the kind of player he was.

But so his unstoppable move was this: He would go down into the post and then call for the ball. You’d toss it to him and, depending on which side of the court he was on, he’d tell you to either spot up in the corner or run through to the other side to clear out some space. He’d take a quick glance over his shoulder to see where everybody was and insta-calculate what they were likely to do in the next few seconds, then he’d start his motion. He’d dribble once or twice or three times, banging into the guy guarding him, softening him up and wobbling his balance. Then he’d clap the ball, fake like he was going whatever direction his guy was leaning on him the most, then spin the other away and jump, floating backward somewhere between three and a million feet. It didn’t matter how big the defender was or how high he could jump. Ant would do it against gigantic skyscrapers and skinny grasshoppers, all the same. I watched him do that same shot for all of those nine years we played together, and I promise I never one single time saw someone block it.

If a double-team came (which usually would happen after he’d done it two or three times in a game), he’d just stay in the air until the last possible instant and then zip the ball over to wherever the open man was. If no double-team came, he’d just keep doing it, over and over again, slowly pan-searing his poor defender. It was so lethal. And so incredible. And so unstoppable. And, if you were on the opposing team, so terrifying.

You know what I remember more than the shot, though? I remember the moment before the shot, those couple of seconds when you knew it was coming and there was nothing anyone was going to be able to do about it. That was so exciting: that feeling of inevitability, that feeling of imminent destruction.

The same thing happens in the NBA, obviously. A player will get the ball in a certain spot and everyone watching will instantly recognize it and know exactly what’s going to happen: Desolation is going to happen; wreckage is going to happen; ruination is going to happen.

A Terror Move is going to happen.

Here are some significant Terror Moves from this year’s playoffs:

  • The thing where Steph Curry has the ball after he’s hit two shots in a row. This one is always so great because in addition to you thinking, “Oh, man. Is this one of those nights when we get an Atomic Steph flurry?,” after seeing him hit two in a row, you can see him thinking it, too.
  • The thing where Klay Thompson has the ball after he’s hit one shot in a row. (It’s the same thing as above, except with Klay it takes only one shot. Nobody in the NBA catches fire as quickly and violently as he does.)
  • Isaiah Thomas’s Fourth-Quarter Avalanche. Kevin O’Connor wrote a good thing about the bigness of his 53-point night in Game 2 of the Celtics-Wizards series.
  • The James Harden 3-Point-Line Pick-and-Roll Cuban Missile Crisis. Incredibly lethal. Even as an ardent Rockets anti-fan, I cannot deny that the Mike D’Antoni + James Harden duo makes for an extra-compelling story line and basketball vision.
  • LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the break together. My favorite part of that Game 1 fast break where Kyrie threw it off the backboard to a trailing LeBron for a dunk is that LeBron 100 percent knew he wanted it off the backboard before the play had even really begun. (You can see him in the picture above pointing up for it before he’d even crossed half court.) And Kyrie, who has always understood how embarrassing an opponent can sap them of their strength, happily sacrificed a wide-open layup in exchange for the chance to rub Toronto’s face in dirt.
  • Kyrie Irving’s Here, Try These Cement Shoes On thing. If he decides it’s time to embarrass you in front of everyone, then it’s just time for him to embarrass you in front of everyone, is all that means. (FYI, Kyrie is second in the playoffs right now among active players when you look at points scored in iso situations.) (LeBron is first.) (LeBron’s iso plays are always less poetic than Kyrie’s, though. Kyrie is a renaissance painter when he starts dancing around with the ball. LeBron is more like, “Here, see if y’all can live through this,” and then he goes crashing into the paint.)
  • John Wall’s Hyper-Sprint Fast Break. It feels wrong to call a John Wall fast break a “fast break.” It should be a faster break, or probably actually a fastest break. Something like that.
  • Kawhi Leonard’s post-up jumper. The basketball version of a dentist’s appointment.
  • Kawhi Leonard’s Guess What. I’m Guarding You Now thing. Here’s a fun stat: Through two games of the Spurs-Rockets series, James Harden has made only one shot while Kawhi has guarded him. It happened in Game 1. Per ESPN, he was 0-for-5 with two turnovers with Kawhi as his primary defender in Game 2. We’re talking about probably the best offensive basketball player on the planet right now. What do you think is less pleasant: Having Kawhi Leonard guard you for five seconds or closing a car door on your fingers 100 times in a row?
  • Joe Johnson’s Iso-Joe routine. It feels like the Iso Joe thing happens a bunch, but actually he’s averaging only 3.4 isolation plays a game. I was emailing with stats savant Mike Lynch about it and he brought up a good point: It probably just feels like so much more because more than 34 percent of Johnson’s shots come after seven or more dribbles.

Same as we did with that column about the NBA playoff questions we should be asking, let’s grab three of these and stretch them out.

The Move: The James Harden 3-Point-Line Pick-and-Roll Cuban Missile Crisis

How Terrifying Is It? 94 percent terrifying

Possible Outcome(s): A big part of the reason this one is so terrifying and unstoppable is because it almost always ends with a big guy trying to guard Harden, which, I mean, it’s hard enough for exceptional perimeter defenders to guard James Harden. Asking a Pau Gasol to guard him is like asking a donkey to climb a tree: That’s just not some shit he was built to do, you know what I’m saying? One of five things ends up happening, all of which are bad for the defense.

  1. The big Rocket setting the pick causes enough of a traffic jam that his defender ends up one-on-one with Harden at the 3-point line, at which point Harden either (a) zooms past him for a layup, or (b) pretends like he’s going to zoom past him and then hops back and shoots a 3. (Harden averages 15.1 points per game off of pick-and-rolls in the playoffs. That’s more than anyone else. It’s even more than LeBron and Kyrie combined.)
  2. The big Rocket sets a mini-pick and then rolls to the basket, at which point Harden either (a) tosses the ball up to him for an easy dunk or layup, or (b) drops off a bounce pass in the pocket for him for an easy dunk or layup. (See the GIF above.)
  3. The big Rocket sets a quick mini-pick and then rolls to the basket, at which point Harden passes the ball up to him for an easy dunk or layup, except another defender has moved over to help, leaving someone wide open in the corner for a 3. The big Rocket throws it to that person and then that person makes a 3.
  4. The big Rocket sets a quick mini-pick and then rolls to the basket, at which point Harden joins him on his quest, then, right when things are looking good and messy in the lane, he throws it out to someone who has floated to the right wing or left wing for a 3. (It’s almost always either Eric Gordon or Ryan Anderson, and they’re almost always several feet beyond the 3-point line, and I’m almost always shouting something like, “Oh come the fuck on already.”)
  5. The big Rocket sets a sturdy pick and when Harden’s man tries to squeeze or reach through it, Harden absorbs the contact and morphs his body into a shooting motion, earning himself three free throws. (This one is infuriating to everyone who does not root for the Rockets. It’s like a real-life NBA 2K hack.)

The Move: Isaiah Thomas’s Fourth-Quarter Avalanche

How Terrifying Is It? 86 percent terrifying

Possible Outcome(s): There is only one possible outcome: the atomization of your everything.

A 2017 Top-Three Playoffs Flex happened near the end of that great Celtics-Wizards Game 2 when Isaiah went bonkers in the four quarter and overtime. The Celtics were down one with less than a minute to go and, following a pick, Isaiah had the ball and was being guarded by Markieff Morris. He hit Morris with a crossover, then pulled up and swished a jumper to give the Celtics the lead. Then, and this was so great because he and Morris had already gotten into it a bit, Isaiah stared at Morris the whole way back down the court, daring Morris to look back at him (which he did not).

Morris ended up fouling out in overtime when he slapped Thomas on the wrist during a jumper (which Thomas somehow still successfully made). Thomas fell down and slid backward, and as he was doing so he was tapping himself on the chest saying, “My bad, my bad,” and I desperately hope he was talking to Morris when he was doing so.

The Move: John Wall’s Hyper-Sprint Fast Break

How Terrifying Is It: 88 percent terrifying

Possible Outcome(s): Well, one thing is definitely going to happen, and two additional things might happen. The guaranteed thing: We know John Wall is going to score. At the moment, he leads everyone in the playoffs in points scored per game via fast break (6.9). If he gets out on the break, it’s pretty much a wrap. Go ahead and mark down those two points.

The two additional things that might happen:

1. If you try to run with him, and then try to stop him from scoring, he might dunk on you and then cuss at you in front of everyone on national television, which is a lesson that Dennis Schröder learned the hard way earlier these playoffs. John Wall is an expert needler. It’s one of his best attributes. He will absolutely undress you any chance he gets. (My favorite moment is from 2014, when he blocked Jerryd Bayless and then looked him up and down in a fashion so smug you could taste it through the screen.)

2. He might blow by you so quickly that the force of the wind yanks the clothes off your body, like how in Wanted when that one guy was running so fast that it was blowing all those papers off the desks. I honestly don’t understand how John Wall is so fast. It’s remarkable. Right before he was drafted he was featured on that Sports Science show. They had him run some drills and found out that he responds to environmental cues in 253 milliseconds, which is wild. (They had this thing set up that would flash a light while he was running and the light would tell him which direction to go.) Another thing that they figured out is that John Wall accelerates to 50 percent of his top speed in just two steps. That’s just a super deadly thing, man.

There was a neat moment at the end of Game 2 of the Celtics-Wizards series where John poked the ball away from Isaiah Thomas and then got out on the break. Poor Marcus Smart hustled back as hard as he could, and Wall, aware of his super ability, let Smart stay juuuuuust close enough to tantalize him without allowing him to be a threat. It was quietly very much a stunt move by Wall. “There’s one guy you will not run,” said Greg Anthony, one of the commentators for the game, “and that’s John Wall in the open floor.” I’m sure there are faster humans on earth, but I can’t imagine there’s anyone faster with a basketball. It’s a true playoff Terror Move.