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Oklahoma City Thunder

One Play: Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Luguentz Dort is proving to be a thorn in James Harden's side

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Luguentz Dort takes the spotlight.

Context: We have ourselves a series.

After losing Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series with the Houston Rockets, the Thunder have now won two in a row to tie things up at 2-2. It was the Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander show in Games 3 and 4 - the three guards combined for 76.0 points in each of Oklahoma City's wins - but the Thunder have received a tremendous boost from Montreal native Luguentz Dort, who has been able to make life a little more difficult for James Harden than he's used to.

We'll get into how effective Dort has actually been against Harden in a bit. First, let's take a closer look at a possession in Game 4 involving Dort that caught my eye.

The play: Danuel House Jr. gets an And-1 late in the shot clock.

Breakdown: After Danilo Gallinari puts the Thunder up by four points with a tough midrange pull-up, Harden brings the ball up the court for the Rockets.

Before Harden even crosses halfcourt, Jeff Green gets himself in position to set a screen on Dort. Harden and Green have developed great chemistry in the pick-and-roll, but Harden waves him off, calling for a screen from Robert Covington instead.

Why? Harden is hunting the biggest mismatch.

Need you be reminded, Harden is the most prolific one-on-one scorer in the league. According to NBA.com, he led the NBA with 15.8 points per game in isolation this season. Not only that, Harden ranked in the 92nd percentile with an average of 1.12 points per isolation possession, an incredible feat considering the volume with which he scored on those plays.

Since Gallinari is Oklahoma City's weakest defender on the court, Harden is trying to force a switch so that he can attack him in isolation.

With Harden still being several feet behind the 3-point line, Dort slides underneath Covington's screen while Gallinari hedges.

Dort gets back in front of Harden in time to avoid Gallinari having to switch onto him.

Covington sets another screen, this time on Dort's left side.

Gallinari drops back instead of hedging, but Dort fights over and is able to keep Harden in front of him.

Covington then sets a third screen.

Gallinari provides some relief once again by stepping up, but Dort gets around Covington's screen before Harden can make a move.

With limited time remaining on the shot clock, Harden swings the ball over to House on the opposite side of the court, leading to an And-1 when he blows by Gilgeous-Alexander.

Why it matters: Forget about House's And-1 for a minute. This is a masterclass from Dort on how to avoid being screened.

I mean, just look at his activity.

Nothing crazy happens on the first screen, but it would've been easy for Dort to simply switch with Gallinari. We see it happen a lot in today's NBA. Case in point? Luka Doncic's game-winner from his historic Game 4. While there's a strong possibility that nobody could have stopped him from making a step back from 27-feet, Doncic's eyes probably lit up seeing Reggie Jackson switch onto him. Harden's eyes would have almost certainly lit up as well had Gallinari switched onto him with 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

The second screen is the impressive one. Not only does Dort fight over in time to prevent Harden from turning the corner, he uses his 215-pound frame to body up Harden.

There's a lot of things about Harden that we take for granted, but not enough is made about how strong he is. It's a big reason why he's such an effective post defender - despite being 6-foot-5, he has the size to hold his own against bigger players on the block. Time and time again in this series, Dort has proven to have the strength to absorb that type of contact from Harden without losing his positioning and without fouling.

Last but not least, Dort fakes as though he's going to go over Covington's screens before darting under it. Notice how Covington isn't even able to make contact with Dort. Dort just dances around him with picture perfect footwork.

As for House's And-1, I don't know for certain what the Thunder are and aren't willing to live with, but I'm assuming that they're more than happy with Harden not getting what he wants for half a possession, leaving the Rockets to resort to someone less qualified to make a play with the shot clock winding down. More often than not, that's going to be a win for the Thunder, not the Rockets, especially when Russell Westbrook isn't playing.

Besides, Dort did his job. The matchup data is far from perfect, but it points to Harden being a completely different player in this series when the rookie is guarding him.

The numbers are actually staggering.

According to NBA.com, Harden has scored 36 points on 8-for-34 (23.5 percent) shooting from the field when matched up with Dort. Against everyone else on the Thunder, Harden has scored 91 points on 32-for-56 (57.1 percent) shooting.

That includes 27 points on 11-for-16 shooting against Schroder, who has defended Harden the second-most on the team.

James Harden vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (Games 1-4)
Defender Matchup Minutes Points Assists FGM-FGA 3PM-3PA FTM-FTA
Luguentz Dort 23:05 36 14 8-34 (23.5%) 6-25 (24.0%) 14-15
Dennis Schroder 9:23 27 1 11-16 (68.8%) 3-4 (75.0%) 2-3
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 2:58 17 3 6-9 (66.7%) 2-5 (40.0%) 3-4
Nerlens Noel 1:54 10 2 2-4 (50.0%) 1-3 (33.3%) 5-6
Danilo Gallinari 3:47 8 1 2-5 (40.0%) 2-4 (50.0%) 2-2
Terrance Ferguson 3:55 8 0 3-5 (60.0%) 2-4 (50.0%) 0-0
Chris Paul 3:24 8 1 3-4 (75.0%) 0-0 (0.0%) 2-2
Steven Adams 2:17 5 1 2-4 (50.0%) 1-1 (100.0%) 0-0
Andre Roberson 0:27 4 0 1-3 (33.3%) 0-2 (0.0%) 2-3
Darius Bazley 1:00 2 1 1-4 (25.0%) 0-3 (0.0%) 0-0
Mike Muscala 0:10 2 0 1-2 (50.0%) 0-1 (0.0%) 0-0

Through that lens, it makes sense why Dort would fight as hard as he did to avoid someone else from having to defend Harden. As Seth Partnow of The Athletic noted, the Rockets have increased the amount of ball screens they've set for Harden since Game 2, likely in an effort to get Dort switched off of him and less capable isolation defenders switched onto him. It only shines a brighter spotlight on Dort's ability to navigate his way around screens and stay attached to Harden.

To be clear, Dort hasn't single handedly shut down Harden in this series. Through four games, Harden is averaging 32.0 points on .444/.327/.838 shooting splits, numbers that are basically on par with what he posted in the regular season. He's also averaging 8.8 assists per game, the bulk of which have come with Dort guarding him. (As good as Dort has been against Harden, he's still received a lot of help. The 14 assists Harden has handed out with Dort guarding him points to the amount of attention he draws even with Dort breathing down his neck).

And yet, we're talking about a one-time MVP and three-time scoring champion here. The days of teams being able to shut Harden down completely are long gone. The only thing they can hope to do is make things as difficult as possible for him.

It's in that regard that Dort has proven to be a thorn in Harden's side.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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