Where was he? What happened to the deadly attack, the heart and competitive spirit, the fear-the-beard, street ball toughness? Maybe someone put something in his drink the night before. Maybe he partied all night long at a nightclub hours before he went AWOL on his team. Or maybe, just maybe, James Harden, so intimidating a few nights ago, choked under pressure of an elimination game and vanished in Game 6 at home on a night that his teammates needed him the most.
He certainly played like a superstar all season long when the Rockets led the league with a top-rated offense, and he made a definitive case for MVP as a candidate and was the centerpiece of Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-shoot offensive style that has backfired in his face. For Harden, whose work on offense was so brilliant, it’s a real shame he was a no-show in crunch time, for one night, pulling a disappearing act when so much was on the line and sunk into the sort of disillusionment that no one ever saw coming, even though the Rockets collectively were not comitted to defense.
Harden succeeds in D’Antoni’s system, running down the court and jacking up shots. He’s the face of the franchise during the regular season, but he has yet to prove that he can get it done for his team come playoff time when he normally has a meltdown. D’Antoni, looking lost and dejected, apparently skipped Harden’s name during roll call before Game 6, and after missing in action, in which Harden was absolutely comatose and seemed exhausted, it was utterly surprising to see him miss shots and turn the ball over.
All night long, Harden appeared to be mentally and physically drained, unmotivated, lethargic and uninspired to lead the Rockets to a much-needed victory to keep their season alive. He shot poorly and wasn’t as aggressive, like he was in Game 1, scoring just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting in more than 36 minutes of play.
You might think that a 114-75 loss was devastating, or even a colossal failure for Harden, because it ended a memorable season and because he didn’t play like the leading contender for the NBA MVP award. What’s more, he’s a great scorer but he’s not a superstar — a word we like to use too loosely — when, in all, he’s nothing more but a sixth man who should be coming off someone’s bench. The real and only reason he’s often depicted as a superstar is simply because the Rockets have no star power.
So, of course, not only does Houston need to surround him with talent it also cannot put all the pressure on him and expect him not to fall apart in the biggest games because he’s not made to be a one-man show after he was a no show in Game 6. It turns out Harden, who averaged 28.5 points and 8.5 assists during the playoffs, won’t quash the memories of such an abysmal performance.
He was passive and careless with the ball, was getting stripped, wasn’t hustling, and wasn’t playing exceptionally well. This was further compounded by his glaring defensive performances. Harden’s legacy is hanging in the balance, based on him getting lost in transition defense, not going after rebounds and not contesting layups. While he was, indeed, mostly mundane and defenseless in a pitoval game, it appears he won’t be productive alone in the playoffs until he is paired with a superstar or joins a team that has two NBA stars on a franchise where he can come off the bench.
It was a historic season this year because, unlike the past couple of seasons, Harden averaged career highs of 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds. And, oh yeah, for the first time in his glamorous career, he finished the season earning a league-best 64 double-doubles. It should be noted that he became the first NBA player to record at least 2,000 points, 900 assists and 600 rebounds.
What we’ve seen for much of the season was an entertaining Rockets team that couldn’t miss and produced one of the best shooting performances in the history of the NBA. Harden was averaging 30.3 points in the playoffs entering Game 6. From the beginning of the game Thursday night, he was lifeless and surprisingly didn’t attempt a shot in the first quarter. Strangely enough, he missed his first shot that came on a step-back 3-pointer midway in the second quarter.
All season long, the Rockets have lived and died by the 3-pointer and abandoned the midrange jumpers. It’s too bad, really it is, that all that energy went to waste when Houston met with the Spurs for a Lone Star showdown in the heart of Texas. As we all know by now, Harden put together arguably the greatest offensive season ever.
It wasn’t all roses and sunshine for the Los Angeles native in the Rockets’ season finale. The pain of an embarrassing loss has already settled in, but he should truly be keeping his chin up and lifting his head up high. The individual achievements are nice, but in the end, a player alone won’t get it done without another star and a solid supporting cast. Armed with scorers and marksmen, Trevor Ariza scored a team-high 20 points and Clint Capela finished with 15 points. The two Sixth Man of the Year candidates Eric Gordon and Lou Williams only combined for two three pointers. And meanwhile, Ryan Anderson missed all of his shots, finishing the night scoreless.
It wasn’t all on him, but because Harden is treated like a superstar and team leader, the five-time NBA All-Star took responsibility for the loss. It’s worth stating that the Spurs’ suffocating defense did everything it could to keep him from getting to the basket, trapping him and closing the lane with the dynamic duo of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt.
The Rockets have a young and talented nucleus, but it’s up to the front office to give Harden the help that he needs if he and the Rockets are to stand on a podium holding up the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. Until then, there won’t be a Heart of a Champion or Clutch City in H-Town.