Coming off yet another buzzer-beating loss at the hands of Demarcus Cousins and the Kings, the Phoenix Suns face a player who beat them at the buzzer earlier in the season, in the form of James Harden and his Houston Rockets.
On Jan. 23, Harden put up 33 points while also dishing 10 assists as Harden's last midrange jumper beat the clock and the Suns 113-111. Harden leads the NBA in scoring at 27.5 points per game, so Harden isn't just torching the Suns.
As far as defending Harden, the Suns threw a couple of different defenders at the all-star, as P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green and a combination of Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas all had varying levels of success against Harden. 14 of Harden's 33 points came at the free throw line, while he shot a good but not great 8-of-18 from the field.
Tucker began and ended the game on Harden and is likely to do so again on Tuesday. Tucker is the Suns best wing defender and with the exception of two isolation plays, kept Harden in check.
His first bucket against Tucker came on the Rockets last possession of the first half. The Rockets cleared out and let Harden take Tucker one-on-one. After a series of crossovers that had Tucker dancing and skating, Harden finished the play off with a dunk.
The second bucket Harden got against Tucker, was in a similar situation. On the game's final possession, Harden once again had Tucker in a one-on-one situation. After another series of crossovers, Harden stepped back and sent Tucker hobbling towards the ground. Thomas came over late to help off Patrick Beverley, but it was too late as Harden had the space he needed to drain the game's final shot.
One thing that Tucker did limit was Harden's fast break opportunities. Harden did a lot of his damage on in transition as he was able to get some easy layups while also finding open teammates as the Suns struggled getting back on defense throughout the game.
Harden was largely able to do this when he was being defended by Green. With the Suns trailing for most of the game, Green's instant offense was needed. Green finished with 15 points off the bench, but he still finished the game at a -2 in the plus/minus department, largely due to Harden and his fast break plays. When Green would try to find his offense, Harden would often leak out allowing him to get out in transition. If the Suns want to keep Green off Harden it is important that keep the game close and not fall behind so that they need Green to spend long periods of time on Harden.
The Suns three-guard lineup saw limited action against Harden, as Goran Dragic picked up a technical midway through the third quarter and he ended up spending the rest of the game on the bench. When the three were out there, Bledsoe drew Harden frequently with Thomas also drawing a few possessions on him.
With Alex Len and Dwight Howard being out (Howard initially injured his knee in the last matchup and missed most of the game), the Suns could look to go small against the Rockets. The Suns made a late push to tie the last contest against the Rockets thanks to a lineup of Brandon Wright, Markieff Morris, Tucker, Bledsoe and Thomas.
The lack of the starting center's on both teams should force both teams to play a little smaller, which could allow the Suns to throw out a lineup of Markieff, Tucker, Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas. This lineup functions as a good offensive unit with Tucker functioning solely as the Harden stopper he can be at times.