We just have a nice balance and we’ve got two of the best point guards in the world. So it’s a nice luxury we have. —Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni
HOUSTON — James Harden has gone on record saying he already should have won an MVP award or two. He won’t have to wait much longer. Some believe this year’s balloting won’t even be close.
The Jazz are doing their best to give respect, while maintaining they can do better on help defense, rotation, staying in front of him, blah, blah, blah. But there’s only so much they can do. The Houston guard scored 41 points in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. He never scored fewer than 26 in the four games against the Jazz in the regular season.
Asked Monday whether it felt like he's preparing to face Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Larry Bird, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, “Yeah, I think so."
"That’s the thing to me that’s really unique is it seems like, if you watch him play, he's artistic the way he plays," Snyder said. "It’s pure. There’s an artistry to what he does on the court, because he sees so many things that are going on, he’s got such awareness. I wouldn’t compare him to any of those guys, nor would I compare them to him, but from a productivity standpoint, and what he’s doing with their team ”
Snyder paused to search for the right phrase.
“You don’t see it.”
Harden's guard-mate, Chris Paul, is no slouch at 33. He tormented the Jazz with 25 points, 10 assists and five rebounds a game in last year’s playoffs. Sunday he contributed 17 points — 14 in the first half — with six assists and four rebounds.
Snyder compared playing the Rockets to “jumping in ice-cold water, where you have a moment where it’s frigid.”
So the Jazz are locked into a dilemma of, yes, Arctic proportions. Even if they could somehow slow a premier point guard like Harden, there’s the Paul problem.
“We just have a nice balance and we’ve got two of the best point guards in the world,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. After a brief description of their skill sets, he added, “So it’s a nice luxury we have.”
But it’s more than a luxury; it’s a gift from the Great Beyond.
“Obviously,” Houston’s Luc Mbah a Moute said, “those guys are tough guards, they’re the best at what they do.”
The Jazz spent Monday’s film session watching what Paul and Harden did in Game 1. It was as obvious as a wart. Harden made 7 of 12 3-point shots, Paul 3 of 6. As a team, the Rockets shot a torrid 53 percent from distance.
“We just try to mix it up with floaters, lobs, mid-range shots we just try to score basically,” Paul said.
How D’Antoni is able to blend future Hall of Fame point guards — sometimes concurrently, other times alternating — was supposed to be tricky. When the Rockets obtained Paul last summer, D’Antoni blithely observed, “We’ll figure it out.”
Did they ever.
Paul is still a star, an elusive and shifty player who weaves into the paint with the ball, tangling opposing defenders, and passing to teammates at the rim or alone at the perimeter. Harden has his low, staccato dribble, step-back jumper and a reaching drive that even Rudy Gobert has trouble altering.
“He just keeps getting better,” Snyder said.
The Jazz have their own mini-dilemma with two starters who play the same position, i.e. Derrick Favors and Gobert. But the similarity ends there. Harden and Paul have been compared to history’s greatest backcourts, such as Magic Johnson-Byron Scott, Isiah Thomas-Joe Dumars, Earl Monroe-Walt Frazier, and current renditions Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan and Klay Thompson-Stephen Curry.
The Jazz on Wednesday will try all their old tricks, including guiding opponents into Rudy Range so he can swat the attempts. But Harden got 56 points in a game versus the Jazz this season, while Paul scored 51 points in three games against Utah, to go with 25 rebounds and 30 assists.
The Rockets have a way of making that notion look quaint.