By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
HOUSTON — Since James Harden already has the beard, it might be time to add the big plastic nose and large glasses to complete the disguise.
Then again, he’s already doing a good job of going incognito against the Blazers.
If the Rockets are going to climb out of the 0-2 hole against the Trail Blazers, first they’ll need to put a lasso or handcuffs on LaMarcus Aldridge.
But just as important, they’ll have to find a way to get their two-time All-Star guard (and leading scorer) to put the ball into the basket.
Through the first two games of the playoffs, Harden has made just 14 of 47 shots (29.8 percent) from the field and looked very rarely and very little like the attack-the-basket, 3-point shooting scourge of the regular season.
In the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss in Game 1, Harden shot just 8-for-28 and followed it up in the 112-105 Game 2 loss by hitting just 6 of 19. It is his worst two-game shooting stretch of the season.
“I’m not worried about my offense,” Harden said. “It’s basketball. You’re gonna miss shots. It’s basketball, like I said.”
It is a game where sometimes shots roll off the rim that usually go in and it is a game that occasionally comes with ebbs and flows.
Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews are shadowing him whenever he touches the ball and the Blazers’ defense is sagging into the paint to cut off his drives. That’s made Harden look like anything but the cool, confident, high-scoring star he usually is in Houston’s attacking offense. He was over-dribbling. He often looked unsure whether to pull up for a jumper or to make his way toward the hoop.
“I don’t know how much is us and how much is him missing shots,” said Matthews. “But we’ll take it either way. I don’t really care.”
The Rockets have to care if they’re going to resuscitate their suddenly flagging hopes in the next two games in Portland. Because even with Dwight Howard rumbling to 25 of his 32 points in the first half of Game 2 by dominating around the basket, Houston’s offense needs Harden to present more of a problem for the Blazers. He needs to be forcing the pace in the open court, taking advantage of his speed and innate ability to absorb contact and finish plays.
Harden averaged 9.1 free throws per game during the regular season, but got to the line twice in Game 2.
Of course, the trouble could be the tendency of defenses to tighten down and generally lock up in the playoffs.
The most troubling concern for the Rockets is that it could be a trend more than just a blip. In the last three playoff series in which Harden has played, he shot 18-for-47 (38.2 percent) against Miami in the 2012 Finals, 45-for-115 (39.1 percent) a year ago in the first round against Oklahoma City and now, this.
For the most part, Harden didn’t want to talk about his own troubles, preferring to change the topic time and again to the Rockets’ own defense.
“When shots are not falling, it’s tough,” Harden said when pressed. “They’re running their offense. They’re milking the clock and we gotta go back down and go against their set defense.
“Like I said, they’re a very long team. They’re a very good defensive team. But for the most part, we just gotta get stops.”
Yet they still have to get their leading scorer to put the ball into the basket with some level of real proficiency.
“We don’t have our same flow, our same mojo that we had, throughout the season,” he said. “We don’t have our same swag where we go out there and just play and have fun with. So we gotta get that back. We got to get our own swag back.”
Starting with their top gun.