There is something very poetic about what it is going on with the Houston Rockets right now. They are an isolation team coached by a pick-and-roll savant in Mike D’Antoni. They are an offensive juggernaut beating the greatest offense in NBA history with their defense. The Rockets won their only two championships when Michael Jordan was on sabbatical. Many have invalidated those championships due to that fact. It feels right that their next chance needs to be truly earned, by taking down a Golden State Warriors team many consider to be even more talented than Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
But the poetic nature of the Western Conference Finals is taken to another level with James Harden. In Game 5, Harden attempted 11 three-point shots and missed all of them. That has only been done once in NBA history, by John Starks in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals. His opponent in that game was the Houston Rockets.
But Harden disappearing in the playoffs is nothing new. He averaged only 12.4 points per game on 37.5 percent from the field in the 2012 NBA Finals, with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and things have just gotten worse from there. He had to watch from the bench as his Rockets stormed back to stun the Los Angeles Clippers in a legendary Game 6 comeback in 2015. One round later, his late turnover cost the Rockets Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
His 2017 season ended when he scored only 10 points on two-of-11 shooting in Game 6 of a second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs. Once again, Harden’s circumstances appear to have been written by Shakespeare. Kawhi Leonard missed that Game 6. And now, Chris Paul will miss Saturday’s Game 6.
Paul was, in essence, Harden’s escape pod. He is allowed to shoot 0-for-11 from three-point range in Game 5 because Paul did just enough to carry the offense for the Rockets to win. He has given Harden a chance to rest more than was possible last season, in which he was Houston’s only All-Star. His defensive attitude has been far more important to this series than Harden’s offense. And now, he has been taken away.
There’s no more safety valve. If Harden doesn’t have one of the best games of his life, the Rockets are going to lose to the Warriors on Saturday. If this sounds familiar, it should. NBA history is littered with circumstances exactly like this.
LeBron James burned down TD Garden in his do-or-die moment. That was Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, played against the team that had most tormented him in his career. Dirk Nowitzki had been called soft for his entire NBA career. Then he led the Dallas Mavericks to an NBA championship despite an illness that James and Dwyane Wade made fun of to the media. Michael Jordan overcame the Pistons. Kobe won without Shaq. Greatness is defined by circumstance. Any player with a legitimate chance to be great has a moment in which that greatness is doubted. If they overcome it, they cement their status. If they don’t, they cement our suspicions.
And our suspicions about Harden, right now, are that he is a great regular season player that fails in the playoffs. That was the general consensus about Charles Barkley and Karl Malone. They both won MVPs, just as Harden is going to. They both lost to Jordan when their moments came. An entire conference has fallen at James’ feet. Dwight Howard doesn’t have a ring right now because of Kobe Bryant. Mike D’Antoni doesn’t because of Gregg Popovich.
But on Saturday, both of them will have their moment. D’Antoni has 48 minutes to orchestrate an offense without one of its maestros. Harden has 48 minutes to execute that offense. And they are doing it against a team that went 16-1 in the playoffs last season. The odds are heavily stacked against both. Most crumble under those odds. If Harden wants to make the leap from regular season great to all-time legend, he’ll have to come up big in Game 6.