Guarding James Harden seems terrible. There might not be a less pleasant job in basketball than being tasked with checking the Houston Rockets’ MVP candidate. Harden has a better understanding than any other player in basketball of how to get to the free throw line, he’s able to mix skill and power to go at defenders, and, oh by the way, he also has the greenest light to let it fly from deep of any player we’ve seen and he’s capable of trying (and connecting) on stepback threes that opponents just cannot stop. Even on his off nights, drawing the Harden assignment seems, truly, like a miserable experience.
This is what makes the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder found someone who can at least battle admirably against Harden so fascinating. What makes that endlessly more fascinating, though, is who that someone is: Luguentz Dort, a 21-year-old undrafted Canadian rookie from Arizona State whose singular job in this series has been “guard the most ruthless offensive player in the world.”
Dort did not play in Game 1 against the Rockets, a 111-98 win for Houston in which Billy Donovan threw, primarily, the 1-2 punch of Dennis Schröder and Terrance Ferguson at Harden, per NBA.com’s matchup data. Harden was excellent, scoring 37 points on 12-for-22 shooting from the field and 6-for-13 from three. A number of guys got to spend some time checking him, too, and largely, it didn’t go well.
One guy who did not get the chance to try and slow down Harden was Dort, who hurt his knee in Oklahoma City’s penultimate seeding game and did not return until Game 2 against the Rockets. Since returning, though, he has drawn the Harden assignment, and done as well as anyone could, let alone someone who is still getting used to life in the NBA and played in 29 total games before the league’s COVID-19 hiatus began in March.
Here is the thing that makes Dort such a good defender: Despite the fact that, at 6’3, he is not the tallest player, he is 220 pounds and quite strong for his size. At last year’s NBA Draft Combine, Dort benched 185 pounds 14 times, which tied for the sixth-best mark among all players. An impressive athlete beyond this, NBAAthlete.com listed Dort as the most athletic combo guard in the 2019 class — his bSPARQ score was the best in the draft among guards and wings — and put him in their bSPARQ Hall of Fame. Add in that he is a very willing defender and Dort has everything a coach wants to try and slow down the most prolific guards that basketball has to offer.
Dort just tearing through the screen. pic.twitter.com/03sI2mqNJO
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) August 23, 2020
“I’ll just a screen and force you o..”
Also notice that Dort overplays to his left to force him right. pic.twitter.com/DQoTHZUsQ8
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) August 23, 2020
Even still, there is guarding those sorts of players and guarding Harden, but Dort has handled that about as well as one can. Per NBA.com, Dort has been the Thunder’s primary defender against Harden in every game where he has played. Here’s how this has gone for Harden:
Game 2: 6:09 minutes with Dort as his primary defender, 9 points, 1-for-7 from the field, 1-for-7 from three
Game 3: 7:34, 9, 2-for-14, 1-for-9
Game 4: 9:23, 18, 5-for-13, 4-for-9
Game 5: 4:34, 16, 5-for-6, 3-for-4
Game 6: 4:10, 6, 2-for-4, 1-for-3
Total: 31:50, 58 points, 15-for-44 (34.1 percent), 10-for-32 (31.3 percent)
Harden’s still getting to the foul line against Dort, as he’s 18-for-20 from the charity stripe across those five games on possessions where his fellow Sun Devil is his primary defender. Still, Dort has been physical with him, and it is evident that Oklahoma City has taken a “do not let James Harden beat us” approach when Dort is able to check him. Some numbers, via NBA.com:
The Rockets, funny enough, have been playing much better with Dort playing, but his presence has given Harden problems as a scorer. Harden is more willing to be a distributor when he’s being checked by Dort, which presents a different can of worms for the Thunder, but it seems evident they would much rather have guys like Eric Gordon, Jeff Green, Danuel House, Ben McLemore, or Austin Rivers beat them than Harden. As a result, Harden’s shooting numbers are down when Dort plays and make a noticeable leap when he does not. But despite that, interestingly enough, that has not made the Rockets better, in large part because taking Dort off the floor makes Oklahoma City’s offense much better.
On that end of the floor, Dort has a major, major weakness. Saying he’s been a non-factor on offense ignores the fact that he has the worst offensive box plus-minus among Thunder players this postseason and he’s shot the second-most threes on his team this series (38) despite connecting on, and this is not a typo, 18.4 percent of them. Threes make up 69.1 percent of his attempts in this series, and while his numbers on twos are not bad (everything he’s attempted has been within 10 feet and he’s connecting on 58.8 percent of those shots), that’s not often what he’s asked to do.
As a result, the team’s offense has been straight up wretched with him on the floor. According to Cleaning the Glass, and I must warn you that the numbers you’re about to see are horrible, the most-used lineup that features Dort (Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams) has played 130 possessions. It is scoring 80 points per 100 possessions, has an effective field goal percentage of 44 percent, and has a turnover percentage of 21.5 percent. Those are the three worst marks that any lineup has in those metrics this postseason. That also applies for the points per 100 possessions differential that lineup has — it is being outscored by 36.8 points per 100 possessions by Houston.
Now, in much smaller sample sizes (although they do add up to 128 possessions), the next five most-used lineups that use Dort the most are much better. But even in that one very bad lineup, it’s not like Dort’s role changes. Think of him in the same vein you did Andre Iguodala in the Warriors’ famed Death Lineup, only without the playmaking or the sense of calm he brought. His Nos. 1-10 roles are to look at the other team’s best player and make him work extremely hard. Anything else he gives is a gigantic bonus.
He’s getting opportunities to give them something on offense. An insane 67.2 percent of his shots in this series have been “Open” or “Wide Open” threes because the Rockets realize they do not need to defend him — which is part of how they make life difficult on the rest of OKC’s offense by making them play 4-on-5. But Donovan seems to understand this, too, and seems to be fine with it as long as he is hounding Harden on the other end of the floor.
Luguentz Dort is not going to be the absolute deciding factor in what happens in Game 7 on Wednesday night. That distinction probably goes to Harden, who, as Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer laid out on Wednesday, has a whole lot on his shoulders heading into the game. But while guys like Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Schröder will be tasked with winning the game for Oklahoma City, Dort’s job will be making sure Harden can’t win it for Houston. If he can make sure that happens, then the Thunder will very likely get the chance to take on the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals.