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#pounditFriday, December 4, 2020

How James Harden’s postseason failures are defining his career

James Harden

A very select few players in the NBA can deliver as the best player on a championship team. Any franchise blessed with one of these uniquely talented players has a championship window open, and must do everything in their power to optimize that time. If one of these generational talents delivers in that quest for an NBA title, their legacy is immortalized alongside the iconic names of basketball history. But if they fail, the narrative shifts to one of criticism and disappointment.

One of the hardest decisions a franchise can make is determining whether or not their star can be the kind of player that elevates his game when the moment calls for it, which is the difference between superstars and all-time greats. Following their disheartening playoff defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets must finally acknowledge that James Harden is not that player.

The Lakers’ five-game dismissal of the Rockets was the latest installment in a series of postseason failures for Harden.

The story on Harden is enigmatic; despite being one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history, his postseason resume is marred with disastrously-timed meltdowns when his teams needed him the most.

In their effort to surround Harden with the pieces he needed, the Rockets reinvented the blueprint for NBA offenses. They launched threes with reckless abandon and stopped playing traditional bigs altogether to maximize their spacing. The influence of Harden’s offensive genius can be seen nightly across the league, as shooters seek to replicate the step-back jumper he has all but perfected. But for all his points and regular-season success, Harden has never propelled the Rockets into the NBA Finals. Some of that is due to the misfortune of facing tough competition like the stacked Golden State Warriors. And some of that is due to Harden not showing up in primetime.

Harden is a 3-time NBA scoring champ, 7-time All-NBA player, and he was the 2017-2018 NBA MVP. His list of superstar accolades is long, but he has come up short in the playoffs.

Harden’s postseason struggles initially began before his time in Houston, when he was still a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Here is a look at how his postseason career has gone.

Early-career struggles

The 2012 Thunder represent one of the great “what if’s” in NBA history, as they possessed a trio of future MVPs. Despite their youth, Oklahoma City reached the NBA Finals, where they faced one of the godfathers to the modern superteam, the Miami Heat. As the team’s sixth man, Harden did not shoulder the same offensive burden he does today. However, his notable failure to record double digits in three of the five games was one of the many contributing factors leading to LeBron James’ first championship.

Every NBA superstar is afforded the opportunity to learn from playoff failures at the start of their careers. What defines the trajectory of their career is how they respond. The legend of Kobe Bryant is not complete without the story of his four fourth-quarter airballs as an 18-year-old in an infamous playoff loss to the Utah Jazz in 1997. For Harden, however, the 2012 Finals were an omen.

Harden’s first two postseasons with the Rockets ended in first-round exits. And while he averaged over 26 points per game in both series, he did not top 40 percent shooting from the field in either one.

In 2015, his third postseason with the Rockets, Harden finally made his first conference finals as his team’s alpha dog.

The birth of a rivalry

Harden is the type of scorer who can win a playoff game single-handedly. But his scoring outbursts have come in situations like the one below where a victory for the Rockets merely meant avoiding a sweep.

The Rockets were dismissed by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in five games in 2015. It was Harden who sealed Houston’s fate in the closeout game. His woeful 2-for-11 shooting and single-game playoff record 12 turnovers in the Game 5 loss was one of the first moments when it started to become clear that Harden’s style of basketball was not going to work against the NBA’s best teams. Houston suffered another five-game defeat to the Warriors in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, foreshadowing their future struggles to compete with the Golden State dynasty.

The 2016-17 season was a year of change for the Rockets. The arrival of the visionary Mike D’Antoni, combined with the departure of Dwight Howard, unlocked the optimal offensive version of Harden. He reached new heights during his first regular season operating as point guard of Houston’s small-ball three-point shooting attack. Despite the regular-season success, Harden’s postseason performance reached new lows.

James Harden

All-time low

Game 5 of the Rockets’ Western Conference semifinals matchup with the San Antonio Spurs was the turning point in a series tied at two games apiece. Harden responded with a triple-double, scoring 33 points with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But with the Rockets down three in overtime, Harden’s potential game-tying three was emphatically sent back by Manu Ginobili.

Ginobili’s block remains one of the most significant plays of Harden’s career. It felt almost as if San Antonio, an organization lauded for its ability to play seemingly flawless team basketball, rejected the notion that Harden’s isolation-heavy playstyle could lead to a championship. In Game 6 of the series, the Spurs vehemently proved this point.

For the NBA’s elite players, there are distinct playoff games where career-defining narratives about them are born. Harden’s effort in Game 6 was one of those defining moments. The Spurs suffocated the Rockets’ offense en route to a 39-point domination, with Harden’s abysmal play garnering all of the attention. In a familiar position with his back against the wall, Harden delivered a painfully similar outcome to the prior seasons. As San Antonio thrashed the Rockets, Houston’s leading man contributed just 10 points and 7 assists against 6 turnovers, while only once again shooting 2-of-11 from the field. Harden dismissed injury concerns after the game.

Game 6 was a sobering reality for Houston. While Harden again excelled at accumulating gaudy regular-season statistics, his disappearing act against the Spurs forced the Rockets to reevaluate his ability to carry a team on his own. In an effort to preserve their star’s energy and enhance their offensive attack, Houston traded for Chris Paul before the start of the 2017-18 season.

Harden won regular-season MVP during Paul’s first season with the Rockets, debunking any preseason rumors that the two ball-dominant stars could not coexist. The 2018 playoffs represented Harden’s best chance to capture his elusive first title, but fate had other plans.

A familiar foe

The Rockets’ Game 5 victory over the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals put them in the driver’s seat to finally put an end to Golden State’s reign of terror, but the win came at the ultimate cost. Paul injured his hamstring in the closing moments, forcing Houston to resort back to relying on Harden to generate nearly all of their offense.

After putting up 32 points in their Games 6 loss, Harden was presented with yet another high-stakes opportunity to redefine his legacy. Although he went for 32 points again in Game 7, his 2-for-13 long-range shooting set the tone for one of the worst team shooting performances in NBA playoff history.

The Rockets were up by 12 points on the Warriors before they built a house of 27 consecutive bricked three-pointers. Watch how many ill-advised shots Harden takes during the stretch as he looks more interested in baiting the officials into foul calls than taking smart shots.

Harden doesn’t deserve to carry all of the blame for Houston’s Game 7 meltdown; his teammates were equally horrific from deep, shooting 5-of-31 combined. But role players feed off their stars to get going in the playoffs. Unfortunately for Houston, Harden left them starving.

The Rockets were unable to recapture the magic from a year prior during the 2018-19 season. Harden continued his regular-season brilliance, as he embarked on the most impressive scoring streak since Wilt Chamberlain. But when the Western Conference semifinals brought a familiar foe back to Houston, the Rockets fell to the Warriors for the fourth time in five years.

Russell Westbrook

Looking to the future

In a desperate bid to resuscitate Harden’s fading title hopes, Houston acquired Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul before the start of the 2019-2020 season. But the only thing that changed about the Rockets’ playoff outcome was against whom they lost. Westbrook’s arrival led to the subsequent trading of long-time center Clint Capela; Westbrook’s ineffectiveness as a shooter rendered the Rockets incapable of playing their style of basketball with two non-threats from deep. Houston gutted their roster and draft capital to go all-in on their small-ball approach, only to suffer their worst playoff performance since 2016.

Coming off a series in which Houston’s offense was completely stymied by the Lakers, the key for Harden moving forward lies in the past.

Any player who dribbles as much as Harden will inevitably have some aspects of the game in which they cannot expend a significant amount of energy on. Off-ball movement shouldn’t be one of those things for Harden. Staying engaged even when he doesn’t have the ball will lead to better offensive possessions for the team and easier looks at threes for himself.

Step-back threes make the highlight tapes, but catch-and-shoot looks are far easier. This season, Harden shot fewer catch-and-shoot threes than historically poor shooters like Eric Bledsoe, Markelle Fultz, and Russell Westbrook. Playing within the same offense, there is no reason Westbrook should have taken more catch-and-shoot threes this year than him. At 41.2 percent, Harden shot the highest percentage of any Rockets player on such looks.

The Rockets’ organization has never wavered in their belief of Harden’s ability to lead them to a championship. Still, after two coaches, three different All-NBA co-stars, and eight failed postseason runs, the writing appears to be on the wall.

With uncertainty the only sure thing moving forward in Houston, Harden is running out of time to rewrite his postseason narrative.

Jack Reining covers the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JackReining3

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