Exum's defense on Harden played a critical role in the Jazz's Game 2 victory over the top-seeded Houston Rockets. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Harden scored two points and was 0-for-6 from the floor in 22 possessions that Exum defended him. Harden finished the game with 32 points on 9-of-22 shooting.
"Just to be out there, the trust from the coaches and be able to make a play and guard one of their best players, it's where I want to be," Exum said after Friday's shootaround ahead of Game 3. "This is what the playoffs are about, making adjustments on the fly. He's definitely going to want to come out and go at me or whatever, but I'm ready to accept the challenge whenever I get on him."
Exum, 22, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 draft whose career has been riddled by injuries, was not available for any of the Rockets' four wins over the Jazz during the regular season because he was recovering from shoulder surgery. Harden, the NBA's leading scorer, averaged 34.3 points on 55.4 percent shooting in those four games, including a 56-point, 13-assist performance in November.
One of Jazz coach Quin Snyder's adjustments after Harden torched Utah for 41 points in the Rockets' Game 1 victory was to use Exum as one of the primary defenders against the Houston superstar.
The Jazz outscored the Rockets by 10 points during Exum's 18 minutes in Game 2. Exum had nine points, four rebounds and two assists, but his biggest impact came on the defensive end. When Harden re-entered the game with 8:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, Snyder immediately summoned Exum off the Jazz bench.
"It's a mistake to overreact to one game and all of the sudden cast Dante as [a Harden stopper]," Snyder said. "Dante played good. He played hard. I've said it before, that's all you can do [against Harden]. We need to try to do the same thing. Dante knows that's a way that he can help the team win, so for him to focus defensively really helped get him into the game, where he was more instinctive offensively too. I'm just happy that he's had a chance to come back this year and compete."
Exum has unique physical tools that give him a chance to be an elite on-ball defender. He is 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan and has extraordinary quickness and speed. He has spent hours studying film of Harden and said he tries to be as physical as possible with the Rockets star before he catches the ball and hold his ground without fouling when Harden is operating off the dribble.
"It's definitely about watching film and knowing his tendencies," Exum said. "Everybody has tendencies and like to get to a certain place. He goes left and likes to step back. It's just knowing when he's doing that and what I can do to stop that.
"It's just about me staying in front of him. I'm not going to get that charge call every time, which you saw in the second half [of Game 2]. As long as I stay in front of him, it's just going to frustrate him. He's used to getting by guys or stepping back and getting an open shot. As much as possible, I have to stay in front of him and remind him that I'm there."