In the Jazz's Game 2 victory over the Rockets on Wednesday, they might have found the one player on their roster who can keep up with James Harden defensively.
While Harden finished with 32 points, 11 assists and six rebounds, Dante Exum made life difficult for the six-time All-Star in ways nobody else on the Jazz has been able to in the early going of their second round series. According to NBA.com, Exum matched up with Harden for 22 possessions in Game 2 and limited him to two points on 0-for-7 shooting from the field. Harden didn't do much else in the minutes Exum defended him, either, totaling one assist to go along with one turnover and one trip to the free throw line.
That means Harden had 30 points on 9-for-15 shooting and 10 assists with one turnover against Royce O'Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jae Crowder and anyone else the Jazz threw at him in Game 2. Those numbers are more in keeping with the ones Harden put up in the previous game, when he scored 41 points and dished out seven assists in a lopsided win for the Rockets.
Having Exum defend Harden was one of the bigger adjustments the Jazz made following their Game 1 loss. Whereas the Australian spent most of his time chasing around Eric Gordon, Chris Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute in that game, Exum defended Harden more than anyone else on the Jazz in Game 2. It resulted in him picking up five fouls in 17 minutes - all but one being drawn by Harden - and yet the combination of his defense and the nine points he scored off the bench helped the Jazz outscore the Rockets by double-figures with him on the court.
Slowing Harden down requires defenders to be able to do two things, the first being keep up with him in isolation. Harden outscored every team in the league in isolation this season on his own. It's hard to believe Exum will be able to completely shut him down in those situations as the series progresses - few players can - but he has the physical tools to make the shots Harden usually feasts on more difficult.
For example, Exum has the height (6-foot-6) and length (6-foot-9 wingspan) to contest Harden's jump shots without fouling. Even though he operates as a point guard on offense, Exum's size allows him to guard multiple positions in the backcourt, which makes him incredibly valuable in a series featuring two of the best guards in the league. His length is more of a factor against the smaller Paul, but there's no denying it gave Harden problems in Game 2, particularly when he went to his patented stepback in isolation.
Exum also has the foot speed to mirror Harden whenever he puts the ball on the floor. His most memorable stop in Game 2 came with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, when Exum pressured Harden off the 3-point line and forced him into taking a contested floater before drawing an offensive foul. Exum used his upper body to absorb contact from Harden without putting himself at risk of committing a shooting foul, the latter being something many defenders struggle with when matched up with the Rockets superstar.
The second thing defenders need to be able to do against Harden is keep up with him in pick-and-rolls. With Rudy Gobert protecting the rim, the Jazz's guards can focus on running Houston's 3-point shooters off the perimeter and funnelling them into his help underneath the basket when involved in pick-and-rolls. Exum's speed and length helps him in that regard, as he can chase Harden over screens and recover in time to contest his shots if he chooses to pull-up from midrange rather than take on Gobert at the basket.
Harden is capable of scoring from midrange, but it's a shot he rarely goes to. He much prefers to pull-up from the 3-point line or finish at the basket, both of which are harder for him to do when Exum and Gobert are directly involved in pick-and-rolls. It's why midrange the one shot the Jazz are willing to give him.
The Rockets simply didn't have an answer for Exum's defense in Game 2. According to NBA.com, they scored at a rate of 130.0 points per 100 possessions when Harden was on the court without him compared to 79.8 when Exum matched up with him. It was the difference between the Rockets outscoring the Jazz by 10 points on the night and the Jazz outscoring the Rockets by the same margin in a game that was decided by eight points.
That doesn't necessarily make Exum a "Harden Stopper" - 22 possessions is far too small of a sample size to work with, even when combined with the few possessions he matched up with Harden in Game 1 - but it does make him the Jazz's best shot at containing this season's frontrunner to win MVP for the remainder of the series.