HOUSTON -- "By yourself! By yourself!"
Cleveland Cavaliers coach Ty Lue hollers from the bench after a ball screen set at the top of the arc prompts power forward Jeff Green to switch onto James Harden, the Houston Rockets superstar who considers seeing a bigger defender alone in space "probably one of the best feelings in the world."
Harden, operating on the left wing, had already tried to blow by his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, but Green slid his feet in textbook fashion to thwart the lefty drive attempt after one dribble. Rockets center Clint Capela, knowing Harden doesn't need another screen, moves from the middle of the lane to the opposite baseline.
With shooters in the corners and on the other wing, the floor is wide-open for the MVP candidate to work. But first, Harden digs a little deeper into his bag of tricks.
He dribbles between his legs, snaps a quick left-to-right crossover, goes back between his legs and darts to his left. Green slides his feet and snuffs the drive attempt again, an excellent display of individual defense. Harden glances up at the shot clock, sees 5 seconds left, takes a dribble backward and launches a 3-pointer over Green's outstretched hand.
Harden buries triple in Green's face
James Harden toys with Jeff Green and then knocks down the 3-pointer in his face.
A big smile creeps through Harden's famous bushy beard as he backpedals down the Toyota Center court after drilling his third step-back 3 in a span of a little more than two minutes.
"He thought it was good defense, which it was, and then it's just one of those things where you can't do s--- about it," Harden tells ESPN, proudly grinning a few weeks later as he recalls the possession, which featured 27 dribbles, zero passes and one pretty shot.
Harden was already arguably the world's best one-on-one player. Hard as it might be to believe, Harden has been significantly better than ever as an off-the-bounce scorer this season, the driving (and shooting, more and more) force behind the Rockets roaring to an NBA-leading 21-4 record.
THE PARTNERSHIP WITH perennial All-Star playmaker Chris Paul hasn't resulted in Harden having the ball in his hands less often. To the contrary, Harden's usage rate (35.8 percent) is a career high, yet he has been dramatically more efficient with the Rockets relying on him to create more than ever.
Harden, the reigning NBA scoring champion, has a career-high scoring average (a league-leading 32.0 points per game) and by far his highest true shooting percentage (63.4) and effective field goal percentage (56.7) during his tenure as Houston's go-to guy. His player efficiency rating (PER) is a league-high 31.63, a jump of more than four points from his career best last season.
It's not as if Paul, who has been a spectacular sidekick since missing a month early in the season with a knee injury, is getting Harden easy buckets. Paul has only 11 assists to Harden, matching the most of any teammate this season. Harden gets himself easy buckets -- and makes difficult, off-the-dribble shots look simple.
"Sometimes I hear on the bench, 'Don't let him shoot it! Stepback coming! Stepback coming!'"
Rockets G James Harden
No player in the NBA comes close to creating as much isolation production as Harden. According to NBA.com tracking, Harden led the league in points off isolation possessions the past two seasons at 6.4 and 6.6 points per game, respectively. That number has leapt to a league-leading 10.6 points per game off isos this season. And Harden's iso efficiency has similarly soared, averaging an astounding 1.28 points per possession, the best of any player with at least 20 opportunities.
Harden's shooting statistics on possessions that he dribbles seven or more times have skyrocketed. He averaged 7.3 shots per game on such possessions last season, including 2.7 3s, shooting 43.1 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from long range. This season: 53.3 percent on 9.1 attempts, including 44.1 percent on 4.1 3s.
Never mind coach Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" offensive philosophy from his days coaching the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns.
"Seven Dribbles or More" has D'Antoni's Harden-led Rockets rolling.
"Last year, I thought he was unbelievable," says D'Antoni, who convinced Harden he could be a full-time point guard after being hired in Houston before last season. "Now I guess I've got to come up with a new word. I don't know what he is this year. He's gone up another level, which I didn't think was possible."
SCOUTING REPORTS ON Harden have had to be revised. He remains one of the game's most dangerous drivers, a creative ball handler with increased explosiveness after slimming down about 12 pounds over the summer. He still has the frustrating knack for drawing fouls, making the most free throws in the league again this season.
More and more opponents, however, would prefer to force Harden to attack the basket over the alternative of letting him launch from long range. Harden -- not one of Golden State's Splash Brothers Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson -- leads the NBA in 3-pointers made (110) and attempted this season (271), hitting at a career-high clip of 40.6 percent.
"Sometimes I hear on the bench, 'Don't let him shoot it! Step-back coming! Step-back coming!' So obviously then, the scouting report is, make him drive," Harden says.
That was the plan Saturday night in Portland.
The Trail Blazers succeeded in limiting Harden to a season-low seven 3-point attempts, but he finished with 48 points, including 15 in the final 7:02 while he single-handedly outscored Portland as the Rockets rallied from a double-digit deficit to win.
"If you find yourself guarding James Harden and your two feet are inside the 3-point line, you're dead. You're dead."
Nuggets coach Mike Malone
Five of Harden's six buckets down the stretch came on drives, one that left mismatched power forward Noah Vonleh sprawled out on the hardwood. The lone exception? A step-back 3, making Al-Farouq Aminu pay for not following the scouting report.
"If you find yourself guarding James Harden and your two feet are inside the 3-point line, you're dead. You're dead," Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone says, repeating what he told his team during a film session. "Guys think they're playing good defense and get pretty good contests. It's not good enough, because he's that good of a player. He takes 11 3s a night and makes a lot of tough shots. You think you're there, you think you're there, and now here's that step-back.
"That step-back 3 is lethal. It's a shot where you can play great defense and he can still score. And he just needs that much separation and airspace to get that shot off, which is where the real problem lies. You switch pick-and-rolls, now you've got a guy up on him: 'I got him! I got him!' Swish. You didn't have him."
How "lethal" is Harden's step-back 3? He made 26 of 46 of them (56.5 percent) this season, per NBA.com tracking. "I would think that most coaches, if you're going against him, would think, 'OK, he hit a tough shot. Live with it,'" D'Antoni says. "But that's some hard living."
THE STEP-BACK 3 isn't something that Harden developed over the summer. It's a move that has been years in the making, a priority for Harden since he arrived in Houston, knowing he needed to expand his repertoire as he made the transition from Thunder sixth man to Rockets go-to guy. Rockets player development coach Irv Roland, who travels with Harden throughout the offseason, has incorporated step-backs into every single drill since Harden was traded to Houston in October 2012. He's more comfortable with the rhythm of a step-back than he is catching and shooting at this point. Harden's increasing confidence in his step-back is evident by looking at the statistics.
Harden attempted a total of only 13 such 3s during his three seasons in Oklahoma City. He took 33 his first season in Houston, hitting only 30.3 percent, opponents happy to let Harden settle for the occasional step-back. The shot improved incrementally in 2013-14 (13-of-37, 35.3 percent), but it has been an efficient weapon since then. He hit 55.4 percent of his 56 step-back 3s in 2014-15. He hit 40 percent in each of the past two seasons, attempting 45 in 2015-16 and 70 last season.
Now Harden is launching almost two per game. It's a shot he seeks, not just a countermove against defenders determined not to let him drive. And, as he points out, it's actually a series of moves, as Harden has a variety of step-backs.
"There's a jab, there's a step, there's a sidestep," Harden says. "To the side, left or right, back, at different angles."
Harden particularly tends to torture bigger defenders forced to switch onto him. An extraordinary court vision makes Harden one of the league's premier passers, but he focuses on his defender's feet in isolation situations.
"Are they shaky? Are they moving while I'm dribbling?" Harden says. "If their feet stop, I'm going by them because they can't move fast enough. [If they lean back], then I'm shooting it in their face."
That's a helpless feeling for defenders.
"You've just got to try to get a good contest, not foul so he doesn't get three free throws and hope for the best," says Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder, whose team was scorched by Harden for a career-high 56 points on 25 shots on Nov. 5, including 7-of-8 from 3-point range. "That's really all you can do when a guy's on that level.
"There's a lot of situations with him where you say, 'Good defense, better offense.'"
Or, as Harden says, you can't do a thing about it.