HOUSTON — It wasn’t the first time that George Karl tossed the kitchen sink at the biggest gun in the Rockets’ holster.
Back in the day when Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp knew a thing or two about playing defense in rainy Seattle, Karl would have just about everyone on his roster throw an umbrella over Hakeem Olajuwon.
So even though Andre Iguodala is a top-flight perimeter defender, the plan was to have constant help coming all night against James Harden.
The league’s leading scorer coming into the game at 35.3 points per game, Harden shot just 5-for-15 from the field (0-for-5 on 3-pointers) to finish with 15 points in Denver’s 93-87 win.
While Iguodala had the head-up assignment of staying with and in front of Harden from start to finish, the Nuggets big men made it a point to step up and show on the pick and roll and power forward Kenneth Faried was always lurking on Harden’s moves toward the basket.
“Iguodala’s pretty good,” Karl said. “But we wanted to put two on Harden and try not to ever give him gaps. I thought early in the game he had some fast break opportunities that we got our hands on the ball and got some turnovers [on plays] that he sometimes he turns into three-point plays.
“I thought Kenneth was very aware and alert to him. We just wanted to put two guys on him as much as possible. Also Andre’s long and gets a lot of deflections. He must have had five or six.”
The Rockets cut a 10-point Denver lead down to 91-87 and had a chance to get closer when Harden squirted through a gap down the left side of the lane. Faried swooped in to reject the layup with 47.9 seconds to go and eventually hammered down a dunk to seal the win.
After his blazing start to the season scoring 37 and 45 points to earn Western Conference player of the week honors in leading the Rockets to a 2-0 start, Harden has made just 13 of 39 shots in back to back losses to the Trail Blazers and Nuggets.
It was one thing for the Rockets to catch everyone in the NBA off-guard by making the blockbuster trade with Oklahoma City on the cusp of the season opener and for Harden to take the world by storm, cruising and freelancing all over the court against the Pistons and Hawks. But that was never going to last once every team got a look at Harden in the Rockets offense and scouting reports began to focus on stopping him as the only real elite level scoring threat.
Iguodala’s pressure and the rest of the Nuggets’ swarming defense also forced Harden into six turnovers.
“Even though we didn’t play well, it’s still just our fourth game together,” Harden said. “As the games go on, we’ll get better and it’s just the fact that we haven’t played together, we haven’t had a training camp or have time to really put in some sets, so we’re kind of figuring things out as we go.”
But the truth is it’s more than that. It’s Harden going from being the third man in the Thunder attack, potentially explosive in any given game, now he has to be consistently potent and effective on every night.
Following the harassment from Iguodala, Harden gets run-ins with stout defenders Tony Allen of Memphis and LeBron James of Miami in the next five days.
“He’s going to have a tough task of being the main guy defenses lock into every night and just got to be really focused and adjust to it,” Iguodala said.
To Harden this is all a new experience. To Karl it’s simply old hat. It’s hard to shoot through an umbrella.