How James Harden got his floater back in Game 4 of Clippers-Mavericks

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DALLAS — Game 3 didn’t sit well with James Harden.

The LA Clippers had just suffered a 101-90 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, giving Dallas a 2-1 series edge. He didn’t struggle overall, making 5 of 8 3s and scoring 21 points. But he had five of LA’s 19 turnovers, and the Clippers scored only 38 points in the paint as a team.

Harden had to make an adjustment.

Harden enlisted Philadelphia-based trainer Chuck Ellis to join him for the duration of the Clippers’ postseason run. Ellis, who played basketball at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, has been working with pros for more than a decade. When Harden first arrived to the Houston Rockets in 2012, he met Ellis through Marcus and Markieff Morris but it wasn’t until Harden was in Philadelphia with the 76ers that the two began to work together during the playoffs.

In Harden’s last two games with the 76ers, Harden scored just 22 points on 7-of-27 shooting. But he also had two of his best playoff games ever in that series against the Boston Celtics, scoring a postseason career-high 45 points in Game 1 without Joel Embiid while using the midrange, and then scoring 42 points in Game 4 while scoring 16 points in the paint.

This postseason, Ellis identified an area of improvement for Harden. They wanted to get his floater right.

“Of the film, we watched where his opening was,” Ellis told The Athletic of what they saw from Harden in Game 3. “We saw that Dallas was trying to take away the 3-point line from James, and push him off the 3-point line. And there were a couple of times where he penetrated too deep and he turned the ball over… We picked where the opening is, and we worked on the opening. And the opening spot is that pocket, that midrange pocket. Not getting too deep all the way to the hole, but getting to that midrange pocket.”

They also noticed that Harden had made just 4 of 8 shots in the paint outside the restricted area. There was an opportunity for him to hit that area harder.

“The midrange game is pretty much a lost art nowadays,” Ellis said. “To be a three-level scorer, you have to get to that. You have to be effective at getting downhill and being smart enough to pick and choose which shots to take and which shots not to take. We work on the floater, we work on the stepback if they try to cut him off, different things like that.”

Harden’s time with Ellis paid off the next game. In the fourth quarter of Game 4, Dallas had tied the Clippers, erasing a 31-point deficit. Harden responded on three straight possessions:

Isolation floater over Luka Dončić. Beat Dončić, floater over Maxi Kleber. Isolation to beat Kleber, floater over P.J. Washington. Float school. Timeout, Dallas.

“That shot was there. Something I work on consistently,” Harden said after a 116-111 Game 4 series-tying win in Dallas. “I had a couple more opportunities where I passed them up and the fourth quarter and then, those last five minutes, I just had to shoot them.”

Later in the fourth quarter, the Clippers called timeout after a layup in traffic by Kyrie Irving gave Dallas a 105-104 lead. Paul George hit a tremendously difficult stepback corner 3 out of that timeout to give the Clippers the lead again with less than two minutes to play. But the last two Clippers baskets were scored by Harden.

With Washington guarding Harden in isolation and the shot clock running down, Harden put his head down and got to the paint. Once again, he used the floater in front of Kleber. It dropped, and Harden drew a foul on the trailing Washington, causing Norman Powell to shriek “and-1!”

“James was special down the stretch,” George said. “He found something.”

And just to close the door on Dallas, Harden got by Washington with the shot clock draining. Kleber didn’t challenge Harden in the air, and despite Ivica Zubac preparing to receive a potential lob as a result of Harden’s established threat in the paint, Harden was automatic with the floater at this point. He finished with 33 points with 16 coming in the paint. All six of Harden’s fourth-quarter baskets were floaters, including five in the final five minutes.

“The one he kicked out to the corner right before he made those five in a row, he had the floater then,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “And so I’m yelling, ‘Shoot the floaters.’ ‘All right, I gotcha.’ And he made made five in a row, and it was wide open. So when he’s getting downhill, and in that drop, the big has to make a decision. Or if they’re switching and we attack, is that big going to step up or is he going to stay back? If not, James got to take that floater. And so in the fourth quarter, he did that.”

Harden understands that he is under the microscope, especially with Kawhi Leonard ruled out for Game 5 due to right knee inflammation. But Harden isn’t just a system player, he is The System. By getting to the floater, a shot the Mavericks are content to permit for now, Harden is giving himself and his team increased chances to optimize possessions on offense.

It’s a best-of-three series now, so Harden knows that he has to do whatever it takes at this point.

“If you can’t make adjustments, if you can’t change your game and still be effective, then you probably won’t make it to the next round,” Harden said. “You probably won’t get far. So for me, it’s an adjustment.”

(Photo of Harden: Tim Warner / Getty Images)

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