In a series that will be viewed as the moment that Damian Lillard thrust himself truly into the Top 10 players in the league, the surrounding storylines fall to the wayside on the macro level. Really, who could blame anyone for giddily enjoying a stepback 37 footer to win the game, the series and the hearts and minds of countless thousands of NBA fans? In Portland, though, we know to not just appreciate the accolades on the front page but what helped make that top line really come together. It’s why players like Brian Grant and Ed Davis will forever be remembered in the most glowing fashion, and in their honor, Maurice Harkless has submitted his name to be added to the annals of the “I don’t need the recognition All Stars.”
If you’ve followed me for any period of time there’s a near certainty you’ve heard me lament Harkless’ shortcomings over the past few seasons—both in the box score and the ethereal “intangibles.” That has always been couched with “it’s not that I don’t like Harkless or I don’t think he’s capable; in fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s because I know he has the ability and the skill to be impactful, and that is the root of my frustration.” That skill, that ability, and those intangibles were on full display in the Trail Blazers 4-1 opening round victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder – more than at any other time I’ve seen in his career.
As much as Lillard’s opening salvo from the logo set the tone for his offensive destruction of the Thunder in the series, Harkless’ opening possessions on Paul George served as a notice that he was going to be a rocket-fueled wrecking ball intent on blowing up as many possessions as possible with all the care of a starved grizzly bear staring at a fresh stream of salmon…and man, was it fun.
Let’s rewind this a bit to properly put into perspective what Harkless accomplished in this series. In the 4-0 series that the Thunder carried during the regular season, there was no player in the NBA more hell-bent on destroying the Blazers than Paul George, and while maybe there were those more dedicated, none had better results. Averaging 38 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists while shooting 45/46/85 and getting to the line a staggering 15 times a game, there seemed like there was no way Portland could contain George. Throw in the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, and all seemed lost on that end.
(While we’re building up the legend of Harkless here, I do have to highlight that George has/had been dealing with severe shoulder issues; however, his production in the series didn’t seem to be TOO hampered, so take that for what it is.)
For Harkless to come out of the gates in such demonstrable fashion—taking on the easily the most difficult assignment in the series and putting his stamp on the proceedings in such a manner sent the message that he, like Lillard, was playing for keeps.
While I typically lean heavily on analytics, it feels like they certainly don’t capture Harkless’ impact nor the Blazers’ game plan. Don’t get me wrong: in the areas he needed to be great in, he was. Acting as the primary defender on ball handlers in the pick and roll, Harkless allowed a paltry .615 PPP. Essentially he was the heat seeking pick and roll missile we all hoped he could be. Whether it was blowing up the initial action, recovering off the pick, offering help, or even gambling off his assignment, Harkless made his presence felt whether the box score read as much or not. Thunder players felt his presence. While that has been the case in spurts over the last few seasons, this has been the highest level I’ve ever seen it on tape.
There’s just no way you can go back through the games and not notice his impact. Think back how many times over the last few seasons where sometimes you didn’t realize he was on the floor. After watching each game back it feels like that version of Harkless is so far away that it’s hard to believe the other guy ever existed.
There are some numbers that aren’t favorable to Harkless when it comes to tracking data; in spot up situations he gave up a ridiculous 1.65 PPP. That puts him in the literal bottom of players in that situation. However, it feels like that needs a bit of context: the game plan always appeared to be “live with non-shooters taking the shot” and sometimes those guys hit that shot. There’s also the “Well, he’s guarding Paul George and he’s really good” metric that comes into play, but more than that, sometimes the newly-found over-the-top aggression from Harkless found him gambling for steals a time or two or helping further way to force one more pass and the Thunder capitalized. That’s basketball.
I’m not one for excuses certainly, but as I watched each of his defensive possessions back, it’s hard to fault Harkless for more than a handful of “what were you doing here” type plays. Otherwise, it was a masterclass performance for a guy who needed it and for a team who needed him.
This was Harkless’ best performance to date, and there’s not a reason why it can’t or shouldn’t continue. The always trusted metric “he looks so much happier” has definitely been on display. I can’t remember the last time I saw Harkless this visibly engaged, smiling, happy, seemingly enjoying every minute on and off the court, and cheering on his teammates. Whoever Portland’s next opponent is, they’ll have to game plan for a much more focused and effective Harkless—one with all the skill and ability to impact a game on both ends of the floor, and the will to make his presence felt by everyone on the floor. Man, does that sound fun.