Brooklyn Nets

James Harden: Brooklyn Nets superstar is playing mind games with defenders

The Detroit Pistons know they're in trouble.

Trailing the Brooklyn Nets by two points with just over a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Detroit decides to switch a pick-and-roll between James Harden and DeAndre Jordan near the halfcourt line, leading to Pistons centre Mason Plumlee picking up the nine-time All-Star. In no rush, Harden takes a couple of steps back to survey the scene while Jordan and the rest of his teammates get in their positions.

It's iso time.

Once the dust settles a little, Delon Wright abandons Kyrie Irving on the opposite wing to double Harden, hoping to catch him off guard. Rather than give the ball up, Harden calmly splits the double, picks up his dribble and takes two massive steps towards the basket, landing him right here...

Harden has a few options available to him - with all eyes on him, Irving, Joe Harris and Jeff Green are either open or a split-second away from being open - but there are two, in particular, that stand out. With Jerami Grant being the only remaining Piston between him and the basket, Harden can either rise up for a floater or lob the ball to Jordan for an alley-oop.

Grant hangs back out of fear of Jordan getting a dunk, gifting a three-time scoring champion an uncontested floater in the closing minute of a two-point game.

That floater used to be the lesser of two evils for Harden, but it's turned into one of his greatest strengths. Per Cleaning The Glass, he is shooting 47.0 percent from floater range this season, ranking him in the 78th percentile for his position. He's almost as good as it gets from that distance. Additionally, he's become one of the league's best lob throwers. It's not something we saw much of last season after the Houston Rockets went all-in on small ball, but Harden had great chemistry with Clint Capela before he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks and has hit the ground running with both Jordan and Nicolas Claxton in Brooklyn.

The combination makes Harden an incredibly difficult player to read and react to when he's run off the 3-point line - something that happens often with how deadly his step back is - because every foray into the paint becomes a game of chicken with whoever the unlucky defender is caught standing underneath the basket. Complicating matters further is his floater and lob pass is often indistinguishable. It's almost as though he waits until the last possible moment to decide what he's going to do.

The result? Plays like the one above, where the help defender is basically frozen in indecision, not knowing what to commit to because there is no "right" option.

"All the time, even now," Harden responded when asked at All-Star Weekend how much he has worked on making his pass look like his floater. "Even now, me and our bigs - D.J., Nic - work on it and talk about it, in the sense of as a floater goes up, at that point, I'm just reading the defender and what he's going to do."

To get an idea of how well Harden disguises his floater and lob passes, let's take a closer look at a few more examples.

Based on this image, do you think Harden shoots a floater or lobs a pass to Nets centre Norvel Pelle for an alley-oop?

The answer...

What about this one: Harden floater or Jordan alley-oop?

The answer...

How about this one: Harden floater or Jordan alley-oop?

The answer...

Another one: Harden floater or Jordan alley-oop?

The answer...

OK, last one: Harden floater or Jordan alley-oop?

The answer...

There are some of you who will go 5-for-5 on those and there are some who will go 0-for-5. To be honest, it doesn't matter. All that does matter is that each image made you question what was coming next. Because if they did, you have an idea of how Grant and the other defenders who were caught between a rock and a hard place felt, and you saw how it worked out for them.

Harden has long been one of the toughest covers in the NBA, but him fine-tuning his floater and lob game might be the icing on the cake.

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