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J.R. Smith could be in line for a lead role should another Mission Impossible sequel be in the works.
For that’s pretty much his job description tonight for the Cleveland Cavaliers when they host the Houston Rockets at Quicken Loans Arena.
Smith’s mission — should he choose to accept it (he really doesn’t have a choice, but it works with the narrative) — to try and check James Harden.
The Rockets superstar leads the NBA in scoring at 31.5 points per game and is regarded by many to be the leading candidate for league Most Valuable Player honors.
When asked after shootaround Saturday in preparation for tonight’s game, Smith said a successful night while chasing Harden around would be if he “misses a lot of shots.”
In addition to leading the league in scoring, Harden is third in assists (9.1 per game), hoists 10 3-pointers every night and gets to the free-throw line almost 10 times per contest.
Harden became the first player in NBA history to score 60 points while posting a triple-double when he added 10 boards and 11 assists in a win against Orlando on Tuesday. He followed that up with a less-than-average — for his incredibly high standards — 28 points, two rebounds and 11 assists in a conquest of San Antonio on Thursday night.
Smith, though, said trying to D up on Harden during the summertime is even more difficult.
“That’s even worse because he carries and holds and does all that other stuff,” Smith said. “They don’t call it in the league, but it’s even worse in the summer.”
In the first meeting between the Rockets and the Cavaliers this season back on Nov. 9 in Houston, Harden had a triple-double with 35 points, 11 rebounds and 13 dimes, but put up 13 of those points from the line, shooting 8-of-21 from the field.
However, that night, Isaiah Thomas was not yet healthy for the Cavaliers, so Iman Shumpert started and defended Harden. Tonight, Thomas will be at the point for Cleveland, meaning Smith must check Harden as Shumpert is no longer in Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation.
“He handles the ball probably more than anybody in the league, so he’s going to get his numbers,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of trying to contain his numbers. Instead of getting 60 and a triple-double, try low 20s and a triple-double.
“Not really much you can do about it, just try to contain him as best you can coming down the stretches.”
Houston (37-13), possessor of the second-best record in the league behind only Golden State (41-10) entering tonight’s game, has won three straight and eight of 10.
Conversely, the Cavaliers (30-20) have very quietly won three of their last four games to finish January, a month in which they emerged victorious in but six of 14 games.
“Honestly, whether (opponents are) hot or cold, they’ve beaten our asses, so I’ll take any kind of win,” Smith said. “It don’t really matter to me right now.”