The inability to hit a floater crushed the Houston Rockets and James Harden in 2017 when the San Antonio Spurs left the middle of the court open. They left the shot the Rockets wanted least available so they could simply defend near the rim and around the three-point line. Harden’s response to this series has been to completely master the floater. Over the last few years, he has.
This season, in particular, is when his floater reached its final form. He was able to score 36 points per game largely because of his floater. It was his fourth most used shot type and he made a remarkable 49% of them. It gave him a counter. A counter to the entire league knowing the Rockets strategy. It is not quite a mid-range jumper but it is not quite a shot at the rim. It is the perfect marriage between the shots the Rockets want and the shots teams were allowing them to have.
Harden, however, has grown attached to the floater. His counter to defenses now has no counters. In the playoffs, he is actually going to it even more than he did in the regular season. It is his third most used shot type and defenses are very aware of this overuse. This has caused him to shoot a disastrous 31% on floaters in the playoffs. Teams now know exactly where to go to defend this shot and where Harden likes to take it; just outside of the restricted area.
Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert majorly disrupted Harden’s game after the second game of the Jazz-Rockets first-round series this year because he knew exactly where Harden was going to be, especially since Harden rarely goes to his euro-step anymore. The lack of a threat to be stepped around allowed Gobert to dictate what Harden did inside the three-point line.
Inside the three-point arc is where James Harden has struggled in the playoffs. He is actually producing adequately from three. He is currently averaging his third-highest 3PT% in the playoffs since he got to Houston and that number would be much better if it was not for the incredibly bad game where he missed 14 shots in a row. His inside game has been what has destroyed his percentages even more than his usual dip in the playoffs.
When Harden does decide to shoot inside the arc, he is failing spectacularly. His reliance on the floater has now hurt his ability to drive to the hoop for a layup. He often decides to take the layup far too late and gets stuck in no man’s land between the top of the restricted area and the hoop. This causes him to either frantically crash towards the rim, his only hope being a foul, or not get enough lift to avoid his shot getting blocked. This has gotten him into severe trouble around the rim. Astonishingly, he has as many made driving layup blocked, eight, as total driving layups made, eight, in the playoffs.
His love of his floater has left his other moves to be forgotten. He no longer plans out a euro-step or drives confidently towards the rim, or even take the occasional mid-range jumper. He wants to consistently shoot his floater and by the time he realizes it is not available, he is one or two steps deep into the lane with nowhere to go.
James Harden worked to fix a huge problem in his game over the last few years; his predictability. His solution led him to average 36 points per game in the regular season and bring his team out of the lottery pit but it also has led his game to again be exceedingly obvious. He either has to start converting on the now more contested floaters or return to his old reliables. In a perfect world, he will begin to hit both.
If Harden does not once again find success inside the three-point arc, the Rockets could be ungentlemanly swept and he will reinforce the narrative that he cannot perform in the playoffs. James Harden usually fails spectacularly from behind the line. This year, it is inside the arc that is causing the Rockets demise.