The killer crossover James Harden uses to break defenders

Dec 5, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) brings the ball up the court during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 5, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) brings the ball up the court during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

When James Harden puts his defender on an island, he’s going to do one of three things: shoot a 3-pointer off the dribble, pull-up from mid-range or take them to the basket.

It sounds simple, but the best isolation scorers can pull each of those off with such great efficiency that there’s no easy way out for the defender. Think of Giannis Antetokounmpo. While he’s quickly becoming one of the toughest matchups in the NBA, opponents can still give him space when he has the ball in his hands because he’s yet to prove he can knock down a jump shot with regularity. It’s a big reason why he currently ranks in the 34.7 percentile in isolation scoring.

However, what makes Harden better than most in those situations is his ability to keep defenders guessing at the point of attack. Just watch what happens to Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood on this possession:

Nasty, right?

Hood thinks Harden is going to attack the basket with his left hand, only he crosses the ball over to his right hand and explodes. Since the Houston Rockets almost always surround him with three shooters and an athletic center, there isn’t an easy decision for the defense to make. If he doesn’t generate a layup out of it, he will get into the paint and throw a lob pass to Clint Capela at the rim or kick it out to Patrick Beverley, Ryan Anderson or Trevor Ariza on the perimeter for a 3-pointer.

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Harden pulled a similar move in the fourth quarter of the same game, this time against Dante Exum.

There are some differences in those possessions — one was much quicker and ended with a layup, the other was more calculated and ended with a 3-pointer — but they’re set up in the same way: Harden slowly moves towards his defender, baits them with a dribble between his legs and then makes a decision based on how he’s being defended.

Let’s take a closer look to understand why it’s so effective. By putting the ball between his legs before making a move, Harden tests his defender out with a hesitation dribble to spot the tiniest gap in the defense and make them pay for it. If they bite on it like Hood and Exum did, he knows he can create space by crossing the ball over to his right hand. If they don’t, he can simply attack the basket with his strong hand.

For example, notice how Julius Randle forces Harden to his right on this possession:

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Now notice how Randle’s defensive stance shifts in the images below. All Harden does to get him out of position is the same between-the-legs crossover, because it makes Randle think he’s going to attack the basket with his left hand. (Also, check out how Harden uses his body to sell it. He’s a master at fooling defenders). The move basically makes the possession go from Harden reacting to Randle’s defense to Randle reacting to Harden’s offense.

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Randle drops back in an effort to recover but Harden creates even more space between them. There’s far too much distance for Randle to cover, and Harden knocks down an easy mid-range jumper.

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It’s hard enough to stay in front of Harden when defenders know exactly where he is going, so it’s nearly impossible to contain him when a defender is forced to change direction three times on one possession like Randle.

Here’s another example. Because Trevor Booker knows he can’t stick with Harden 1-on-1, he funnels him towards the three Brooklyn Nets defenders hanging around the painted area. It’s not a bad decision seeing as Booker has a better shot at making his life difficult by sliding his feet towards the help defenders than he does by dropping his left foot backwards.

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Think of it as a safety blanket. The Nets can probably live with the Rockets scoring as long as they do everything possible to make Harden’s life difficult. In theory, even though he has a mismatch on him, sending Harden in the direction of three stationary defenders accomplishes that.

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The problem is Booker gives Harden a little too much room to operate. Like the plays above, Harden makes Booker think he’s going in the direction he wants before exploding in the other. With Booker’s momentum carrying him away from Harden, the Nets can’t react in time to prevent him from getting an uncontested basket.

Here’s one more clip just to show how Harden uses the between-the-legs dribble to size up his defender. Instead of crossing the ball over to his right hand, though, he drives with his left hand.

There’s obviously lot more to what makes Harden special in those situations. He can get a step on elite wing defenders like Andre Roberson with a well timed in-and-out crossover or simply use the threat of being able to put the ball on the floor to get a big man back-peddling. Nevertheless, the process is always the same with him using a skip dribble to bait and switch his defender.

It goes to show how difficult it is to contain Harden, too. He doesn’t have jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism and isn’t the quickest guard in the NBA, but he’s incredibly strong and changes speeds on a dime. When you package it with a smooth jump shot and a knack for finishing at the rim, it makes for a pick-your-poison matchup that becomes practically unstoppable in Mike D’Antoni’s system.