By: Oscar Rzodkiewicz
James Harden’s impeccable regular season in 2017 was undercut on Thursday night as the NBA MVP-hopeful posted only 10 points with two made field goals and six turnovers in a 114-75 concession to the Spurs in Houston.
Prior to the contest, it appeared the basketball gods tried to setup a decisive Game 7 between two of the Western Conference powerhouses: Kawhi Leonard sat with ankle trouble, LaMarcus Aldridge was petering out a pedestrian 15.8 PPG in the series, and Harden and his crew found themselves defending their own floor with a dire feeling in their guts. However, after being outscored 61-42 in the first half of Game 6, the Rockets’ fuel tank ran dry, and James Harden failed to force a chance at a third consecutive playoff meeting with the Golden State Warriors.
In all fairness to the Spurs, Aldridge posted a series-high 34 points to go along with five other Spurs scoring in double-figures–in typical Popovich fashion–to secure the victory, but Houston’s lackadaisical effort began at the top with their bonafide superstar.
Fatigue easily could’ve been playing a role in Harden’s unimpressive night. Tom Haberstroh explained how the Rockets star traveled not only 3.53 miles per hour in the playoffs compared to 3.68 miles per hour during the regular season but also a mere 3.36 MPH in Game 6. Harden has spoken out against the nature of DNP-Rest, saying, “I’m a hooper. I just want to hoop. I’ll rest when I’m done.”
If that’s the case, he now has an extra couple of weeks to get ready for next season as the Rockets will fall short of the Western Conference Finals despite Harden sporting incredible regular season figures of 29.1 PPG and 11.2 APG with the fifth-ranked PER in the league.
The responsibility of high-level performance in desperate situations has gone unsatisfied by Harden before. In a Western Conference Semifinals match-up in 2015 against the Clippers in a Game 6 while trailing 3-2 in the series–a blatantly similar situation to 2017–Harden’s squad completed a 19-point comeback in the second half as Harden himself rode the pine after going 5-20 from the field with a final +/- of -20. The Rockets were fortunate enough to move on, only to be smothered in five games by the Warriors.
In fact, sandwiched between two brilliant bodies of work from Harden remains the disappointing 2016 campaign during which the Rockets failed to amass a .500 record as The Beard scored 2376 hollow points en route to a first-round exit from the postseason.
Nobody questions Harden’s talent on the floor as he shot 44% from the floor this season while attempting 9.3 three-pointers a contest, but his leadership skills and clutch genes are certainly within question; can James Harden be the apex of a champion caliber squad, and what does he need around him to get to that point?
During the summer of 2016, Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey went all-in to sign big names to surround Harden and put him in a better environment to succeed after a sub-par year. Morey lured head coach Mike D’Antoni to Houston to create a faster-paced, dangerous attack on offense, supplying him with new free agents like sharp-shooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and a veteran big man in Nene. The prolific three-point shooting hit a new high in 2017, as the Rockets attempted an NBA-record 3306 shots from beyond the arc this year, 527 more than the second place finisher in the category using a system that fits Harden’s gunning style of play and forcing the defense to spread to the perimeter to open up drives to the cup by the elusive star.
Despite the moves, the Rockets still fell short against the post-dominated play of San Antonio in the playoffs and dropped three of four games to the reigning Western Conference champion Warriors as Houston shot a weak 41.6% in the regular season series compared to 46.2% total on the year.
James Harden’s historic play for 82 games led most to believe that the Rockets could at least fight for a spot in the NBA Finals on the back of the MVP-hopeful. However, after an unceremonious departure from the playoffs, Houston appears to be the third banana to a Western Conference power struggle between San Antonio and Golden State. Harden filled the stat sheet during the season, but he crumbled again when his team begged for another chance. Finding the right mesh of talent, coaching, and demeanor in Houston seems difficult, but the blame must fall partly on their number one scoring threat and franchise player. Effort and determination cannot be quantified, but their effect on the outcome of a game is ubiquitously vital. Harden has consistently fumbled away opportunities to prove he can fill the win column as much as he does the box score, and until he can find a happy medium and a cohesive team style, the Houston Rockets may never be able to find the true excellence of an NBA Finals victory.
By: Oscar Rzodkiewicz