The assignment Thursday night called for Clippers all-purpose defensive ace Maurice Harkless to be prepared to face two of the NBA’s most dynamic scorers in Houston’s James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
As tall of a task as it was for Harkless, he got himself ready for the job by watching film of the last few games Harden and Westbrook had played.
On any given night, Harkless may defend a point guard, shooting guard, small forward or power forward, so it is up to him to be prepared for every circumstance.
“It’s just kind of knowing who you are going against,” Harkless said. “It’s doing your homework. Guys in this league are really good. Nobody is going to shut anybody down, hold them to zero points. That’s not going to happen. But the key is just to try to make it tough on them.”
The first few minutes of the game showed just how versatile Harkless is on defense.
He blocked a shot by Harden and then switched over to defend Westbrook one possession later.
Harkless even helped on defense, blocking a shot by P.J. Tucker later in the first quarter.
But the Clippers and Harkless were unable to contain Harden and Westbrook in the second half, which was a big reason why the Rockets finally took a 122-117 victory at Staples Center.
Westbrook scored 25 of his 40 points and Harden had 21 of his 28 in the second half.
“The biggest run they made was when James went out,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “And they had a bunch of guys on the floor and Russ, and Russ decided, ‘I’m taking this game over,’ and all the other role players played their role.
“We talked about that this morning, when James goes out of the game, Russ becomes Oklahoma Russ and we didn’t handle it very well.”
Harden had entered the game leading the league in scoring, averaging 38.9 points. Westbrook entered the game second on the Rockets in scoring, averaging 22.8 points.
Harkless saw a lot of what they can do.
“I watch a lot of basketball,” Harkless said. “I try to watch a lot of games at home. And then when we have a matchup, I’ll try to see if they’re playing. If they’re not playing, I’ll just pull up and watch the top three guys and then watch their top sets that they run.”
There were times when Patrick Beverley, who was ejected in the fourth quarter, defended Harden. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George also took turns defending Westbrook and Harden.
“The good thing about it is we have a lot of guys who can guard, a lot of guys who like to guard at high level,” Harkless said. “It’s tough for guys to figure it out. Pat is a different defender than I am. Kawhi is a different defender than Pat is. So it’s like we’re hitting them with different guys at different points of the game. Sometimes I think it’s tough for an offensive player because you don’t know who you’re getting.”
When the Rockets’ stars finally got going Thursday, it didn’t matter who tried to get them.