When the Atlanta Hawks overcame the Miami Heat in the play-in tournament to book their place against the Boston Celtics in the opening round of the playoffs, we all knew that Trae Young held the keys to their success.
While most Celtics fans felt comfortable in the knowledge that Boston was going to progress beyond the series, it was accepted that Young could win a game or two for his team. Because, for all of his defensive shortcomings, Young’s ability to pull up from anywhere, spot a pass out of nothing, and simply be a thorn in the Celtics' side was a threat worth respecting.
As things turned out, Young did single-handedly win a game. Yet, despite Young’s heroics, Atlanta’s roster lacked the pieces necessary to really turn the screws on the Celtics, and as such, they’re now perusing vacation brochures with their families.
The Celtics, though, will have no intention of jetting off for some R&R anytime soon. Instead, they will now have to deal with a different type of guard in James Harden, a guard that is arguably the best passer in the NBA at present; a guard who has redesigned his style of play as his body has begun to show signs of age, but still, a guard who can drop 20 and 10 on you consistently; a guard who runs the pick-and-roll with a monster MVP candidate (when healthy) and who revolutionized the stepback jumper from deep.
Harden’s presence on the court essentially guarantees your team 30-40 points per night in points and assists, and that is a tough cover for even the sternest of perimeter defenses.
Unlike Young, Harden isn’t one to push the pace. Rather, he will look to slow the game down and operate at a speed that suits him while executing his plan with methodical precision. Now, that doesn’t mean that those around Harden will also look to play slow — Tyrese Maxey, for example, is a whirlwind that the Sixers look to harness as a form of controlled destruction.
Harden, however, knows how to manipulate a defense and understands the gravity he possesses across all three levels of the court, which affords him opportunities to pick his spots on when to explode and when to dawdle.
Look at the above play and tell me it doesn’t have ‘old man hooper’ vibes. The Brooklyn Nets defense all react to Harden’s entry into the paint, but his lack of pace makes it hard to speed him up or pressure the ball. As such, Harden strolls to his spot, draws the defense, and then hits the ‘I’m better than you’ pass to find Paul Reed on the baseline.
It will be interesting to see how the Celtics' perimeter defenders look to approach guarding Harden in the opening games of the series before they’re situated with what works and what doesn’t. Rather than looking to blitz him on the catch, they may find that forcing him weak or taking away passing angles is the best approach. Furthermore, for as long as Joel Embiid is on the injury list, Harden’s pick-and-roll offense will have to evolve, and that in and of itself will be a development worth keeping an eye on. I would expect Tobias Harris to take on a bigger role as a screener, but maybe he’s asked to pop rather than roll, and then how does Harden adjust?
Of course, there is also the defensive angle to consider. While Harden and Young are both poor defenders in one-on-one situations, and neither is the picture of guarding in space, Harden is capable of holding his own when tasked with defending the post and when operating as part of a team defense.
Sure, we might see the Celtics look to hunt Harden on certain offensive possessions when either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown was to iso on the perimeter, but for the most part, the former MVP won’t be the same type of target that Young was over the last six games.
Fortunately for Boston, their perimeter defense is one of the best in the NBA, and they should be more than capable of adjusting to the grandpa ball that Harden likes to play. However, part of what has made The Beard so successful in recent seasons is his ability to lull you into a false sense of security before pulling out a magical pass or hitting a shot out of nowhere, so the Celtics' defense will need to ensure they’re locked in from start to finish.
Harden might not be the scoring machine that he was during his prime, yet this new rendition of the aging superstar is just as dangerous, if not more so, as he has found new ways to make his presence felt. It’s going to be a long and taxing series for Marcus Smart and Derrick White, who will likely be tasked with limiting Harden’s impact (usually, I would say slowing down, but honestly, can he go any slower?).
I for one can’t wait for this series to begin, so we can get our first taste of the next chapter in this ever-growing rivalry. The fact that Harden is a total juxtaposition to Young is just another layer to what's already projecting to be a fun and heated series.