Denton: Harkless Responsible for Guarding League's Elite
By John Denton
Feb. 6, 2014
ORLANDO – Over a 19-day, 10-game stretch of last season, then-rookie forward Maurice Harkless faced the daunting task of guarding LeBron James (twice), Kevin Durant (twice), Paul George (twice), Carmelo Anthony and Steve Nash for his Orlando Magic.
Harkless didn’t know it at the time, but head coach Jacque Vaughn was putting the small forward to the test to see how he would hold up against a parade of some of the best scorers on the planet. Facing that Murder’s Row not only prepared Harkless – now 20 years old – for the challenge that he would be facing every night in the NBA at his position, but it also bettered him. Some of his finest performances – a 25-point game against Oklahoma City and another stellar six-steal effort – came during that brutal stretch and convinced Harkless that he could hold up defensively against some of the most lethal scorers in the game.
``That was a stretch of a week or so where I had to guard every one of those guys and it gave me the experience that I needed and it got me more prepared,’’ Harkless remembered. ``I’ve done it before against those guys, so it’s nothing new to me now.’’
Harkless will get the ultimate challenge again on Friday night when he is one of the Magic players assigned to guard Durant, who is far and away the NBA’s leading scorer at 31 points per game. The Magic (14-37) and Thunder (40-11) are at vastly different places in the standings, but two teams have played some extremely tight games over the past two seasons, including a 101-98 thriller won by OKC in December. Orlando twice pushed the Thunder last season before fourth-quarter rallies allowed Oklahoma City to pull away.
``I give credit to our guys for being in tuned with what we’re trying to do throughout the course of the game,’’ Vaughn said of his team’s close games against Oklahoma City. ``They’re a tough team and I’m glad we only play them a few times.’’
Vaughn said Orlando will use a variety of players on Durant, including Tobias Harris, Arron Afflalo and the 6-foot-9 Harkless. OKC’s superstar small forward is coming off one of the best Januarys in NBA history after averaging 35.9 points per game in the month. He scored 30 or more 13 times in January, hit 40 points five times and authored a jaw-dropping 54-point effort against Golden State on Jan. 17. He’s become the most unstoppable scoring force in the NBA today and those asked to guard him are often at his mercy.
``His skill set is as versatile as they come and the better he gets on the block (when posting up) with that length of his the better he will become,’’ said Afflalo, who had 25 points against OKC earlier this season. ``In terms of his size, ball-handling ability and quickness, I don’t there’s a guy in this league that can match that.’’
Harkless was in and out of the Magic rotation early in the season, but he has played his way into Vaughn’s good graces with some stellar play of late. He got preparation for facing Durant by checking Detroit’s Josh Smith Wednesday night when Harris got in foul trouble. Harkless held Smith to just three baskets in the fourth quarter when the Magic steadied themselves and pulled away for a stirring 112-98 victory.
Harkless did a little bit of everything in the win, scoring 15 points, grabbing nine rebounds, swiping two steals and blocking one shot. He also drained two 3-pointers and hit all three of his free throws in his 24 minutes on the floor.
Harkless said the key now if for him to carry over his effort against a superstar player like Durant. The four-time All-NBA performer is so hard to guard, Harkless said, because he had seemingly limitless range and he’s tall enough to shoot over foes even when they contest. Harkless was able to give Durant some problems with his length last season, forcing him into 11 turnovers in two games.
``Anybody who I’m playing against, I’m out there trying to shut them down,’’ said Harkless, who averages 1.1 steals a game to go with his 6.7 points per game. ``We’ve got K.D. coming in on Friday and he’s playing great. I just have to try to slow him down. You’re not going to stop a guy like Durant or shut him down. The best you can do is try to slow him down and make it tough for him. I’m going to try to be into him, but he’s been playing so great. It’s going to be tough, but I’m up for it.’’