2015 NBA Playoffs: The Time is Now for James Harden

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iJames Harden must be ready to prove that his regular season success can translate to the postseason.

For Houston Rockets guard and MVP-hopeful James Harden, the time is now. 

Harden, who has masterfully shouldered an enormous load for the Rockets this year, has had a brilliant regular season campaign, one that he hopes nets him his first ever Most Valuable Player Award.

After finishing 56-26 in the brutish West and clinching the second seed, Harden and his Rockets are now slated for a first-round matchup with inner-state rival Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, and they hope this first-round series will be a far-cry from what transpired in last year’s opening-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers. 

Everyone knows how the series against Portland concluded. Damian Lillard connected on a three-point bomb that caused Rockets fans to shudder and Blazers fans to squeal. Going into the series Portland was perceived as the underdog, but that label meant nothing to them as they were determined to advanced in the postseason. Houston couldn’t overcome Harden’s horrific shooting performances, and as a result they were forced to watch the remainder of the playoffs at home.

Against Portland, Harden was pitted against Wesley Matthews, a sharpshooting defensive stalwart that harassed him on both ends of the floor. Defensively, Harden couldn’t meander in his own little world like he had done so often throughout the course of the regular season because not only could Matthews, but Lillard and Nicolas Batum (on switches) could easily make him pay for resting on his laurels. 

James Harden

But of course, Harden did saunter off into the distance on defense, and in game two of the series it came back to bite the Rockets in the ass. Check out this huge defensive miscue from Harden that bumped what was a four-point Blazers lead to six with 39 seconds left to go. These type of gaffes are inexcusable during regular season basketball, so they definitely have no place in playoff hoops, where the importance of each-and-every possession increases tenfold. 

Offensively, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say Harden was basically abysmal in the six-game series. His numbers, specifically from an efficiency standpoint, tapered off a great deal in comparison to his regular season stats.

Season: 25.4 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.7 RPG, 45% FG, 36% 3PT FG

Playoffs: 26.8 PPG, 5.8 APG, 4.7 RPG, 37% FG, 29% 3PT FG

Harden’s shooting was atrocious, and I think this can be accredited to not only only the defensive prowess of Matthews and Batum, but fatigue as well. Harden logged 2,777 minutes in the 2013-14 regular season, which was good enough for 3rd most among shooting guards. In addition to juggling duties as the team’s primary playmaking and scoring option, Harden played 43.8 minutes per game in the playoffs (1st amongst shooting guards) while trying to work his offensive magic against the likes of Matthews and Batum. 

“You’re a pro! You shouldn’t get tired!” 

Sure, we’d all like to believe that NBA players are superhuman athletes shrouded by invincibility, but exhaustion sets in for EVERYBODY at one point or another. No, I’m not saying fatigue is the main reason as to why Harden flamed-out in the playoffs, but I definitely think it was somewhat of a contributing factor. 

But despite the prospect of weariness, Harden still racked up a healthy amount of points against Portland. He managed to score a total of 161 points last postseason, but he needed 133 field goal attempts and 45 made free throws to tally that many. What’s the strangest part about all of this? Harden only connected on 50 of those 133 shots. Your best player making five more attempts from the field than he did from the free throw line is not going to yield you an NBA championship that’s for damn sure. 

So for perspective, let’s compare the first round playoff numbers of Harden, his MVP counterpart Stephen Curry, and his opening round foe Damian Lillard. 

Curry: 23 PPG, 8.4 APG, 3.6 RPG, 44% FG, 38% 3PT FG, 161 total points, 116 FGA, 42 FT attempts

Lillard: 25.5 PPG, 6.7 APG, 6.3 RPG, 48% FG, 66% 3PT FG, 153 total points, 94 FGA, 48 FT attempts

Harden: 26.8 PPG, 5.8 APG, 4.7 RPG, 37% FG, 29% 3PT FG, 161 total points, 133 FGA, 50 FT attempts

Curry was able to match Harden’s point total with 17 less shots and Dame fell eight points shy of reaching the 161 point plateau on 39 less attempts. Obviously Dame’s absurd 66% (!!!!) from the three-point line and 23 made threes in the series explains why he was able to score that many points on less than 100 shots, but Harden’s numbers still pale in comparison to those of Curry’s and Lillard’s, even when you recognize that Dame’s three-point madness was an outlier. And despite that ghastly percentage Harden shot from downtown, he still attempted nine threes a game, and a hoisted up a total of 54 for the entire series. 

If you are shooting 29% from behind the arc, and you have a 6’11 beast in the paint by the name of Dwight Howard who completely outplayed not only you, but any other big man on the floor not named LaMarcus Aldridge by a wide margin, you might want to throw him the ball instead of mercilessly chucking ill-advised threes. Just a thought.

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Fans had clamored for Howard to assert himself yet again as the league’s best center, and against the Blazers, Howard resembled the most menacing big man in the game, looking spry and engaged, as he terrorized Robin Lopez on a nightly basis.

Howard averaged 26 points per game along with 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on 54% shooting, giving his most valiant effort to try and steer the series in Houston’s direction. He totaled 156 points on 106 field goal attempts, all while shooting a total of 64 free-throws and making less than Harden even attempted. 

If Howard can replicate this type of play, and Harden manages to muster up more than what he offered last postseason, the Rockets may command some serious respect from basketball fans as a legitimate title contender. 

But why don’t hoops heads buy into the notion that the 2nd-seeded Rockets can make a run for the NBA title? First off, Golden State and San Antonio are REALLY FREAKING GOOD, and second of all, some suspect that Harden’s game isn’t built for the postseason?

Huh?! James Harden, one of arguably the five best basketball players in the world, doesn’t have his game built for the postseason? What in the hell could someone even mean when they say that?!

Some fans are disturbed by Harden’s seemingly over-reliance on the free throw line. He’s critiqued harder than any player in the Association for his constant trips to the stripe, and many find his “ref-baiting” distasteful. People honestly cannot stand to see Harden hurl himself into any opposing player, jerk his body around and flail his arms while hollering for a foul.

But do you know what drives fans even crazier? When Harden actually gets the call. 

Harden led the league this season in both free-throws made (715) and free-throws attempted (824) by a huge margin. Russell Westbrook was second in both categories, trailing Harden by 169 FT’s made, and 170 FT’s attempted. Fans become irritated when they glance at a box-score and see that over half of Harden’s points in a 30, 40 or maybe even 50-point outing came from the charity stripe. “That’s not gonna cut it in the postseason, refs won’t be calling those ticky-tack fouls!”

The physicality of playoff basketball is well documented and often celebrated by fans that want to see rough and rugged play, but it’s also very important to highlight Harden’s number of FT attempts per game in the postseason as a member of the Rockets. 

2012-13: 11 FTA per game

2013-14: 8.3 FTA per game

Regardless of what cynics say about Harden’s game, he still gets to the line in the playoffs. Defense’s try to prevent the evasive Harden from getting to the stripe, but he’s honed the craft so well that it’s become damn-near impossible to do so. Even Memphis Grizzlies defensive specialist Tony Allen, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA today, admitted to not being able to figure Harden out‘ due to his incredibly crafty nature on the offensive end.

Saying Harden won’t play well in the postseason due to lack of FT’s is a lazy assessment. Obviously his performance in last year’s playoffs was underwhelming, but I think Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum and the Blazers coaching staff deserve commendation for the precise scouting job they did on Harden.

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Portland didn’t allow Harden to lull them to sleep with the dribble, and didn’t bite on his tempting ball-fakes. They used length and physicality to disturb Harden, and it worked like a charm. Defense is what spawns championships, and sometimes a great defense can flummox even the best of offensive players. It happens. 

Others still blast Harden for the porous defense that was on display throughout the course of last season, but fail to show recognition to the growth he’s undergone on that end. He’s exerting maximum effort (most of the time) and is really paying attention to detail. Speaking as a guy that prides himself on the defensive end when he plays pick-up basketball, those two components are really half of the battle. Some may be less than stellar defenders simply due to their physical stature or athletic limitations, but competing and communicating on that end of the floor goes a very long way.

Harden’s progression on that end of the floor is what allowed the Rockets to resemble somewhat of a defensive powerhouse throughout the early stages of this season. Houston eventually did regress as a team on that end, but it’s difficult to stay afloat for so long in such a brutal conference without your defensive anchor. Harden posted a career-high 4.2 defensive win-shares this season, and finished 6th in steals per game (1.9.) Impressive for a guy that was considered one of the biggest defensive liabilities in the league this summer. 

After capturing a gold medal with Team USA this summer, and becoming, in my opinion, a top-five player in the NBA, notching an MVP award under his belt would be a hell of an accomplishment for Harden. But if he wants to continue to march down the path of greatness Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade all not only trekked down, but set ablaze at one point or another, Harden has to show that the postseason is an environment in which he can thrive in. Those superstars relished those moments, and they’ve all had performances that backup that claim.

Iverson’s 48-points in game one of the 2001 NBA Finals against the Lakers? Check.

Kobe’s game four takeover in the 4th quarter and overtime against the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals? Got it.

Wade putting 42 and 13 on Dallas in game three to spark Miami’s comeback in the 2006 NBA Finals? You already know what that’s hitting for!

Harden must have his moment(s) relatively soon, so we can confidently believe that he’s Kobe and Wade’s successor as the league’s most dynamic two-guard.

He did somewhat confirm this during his stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he was flanked with elite-level talent on that squad, so some may place an asterisk on those numbers until Harden really has the breakout postseason and or moment we all anticipate.

How does James stack up to the aforementioned all-time greats? Let’s compare Harden’s first two postseasons to those of Wade, Bryant and Iverson’s.

Wade: 22.9 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.9 RPG, 47% FG, 22% 3PT FG

*Bryant: 20.8 PPG, 4.5 APG, 5.1 RPG, 43% FG, 34% 3PT FG

Iverson: 27.2 PPG, 4.7 APG, 4.1 RPG, 39% FG, 29% 3PT FG

Harden: 26.6 PPG, 5.2 APG, 5.7 RPG, 39% FG, 31% 3PT FG

If you wanted to put a positive twist on things, Harden’s numbers are eerily similar to those of Iverson’s, who went on to become an NBA legend, one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen and an iconic figure in the landscape of Philadelphia sports. However in Iverson’s first two postseasons, he had at least made it out of the first round, something Harden has yet to do in a Rockets uniform. 

Another playoff mishap and I can only imagine the slander Harden would endure on Twitter and other forms of social media. The ridicule would be endless, but the level of disappointment even higher. I just really hope people don’t deride Harden and the Rockets if they fall short yet again this postseason and Harden plays solid basketball. They shouldn’t be penalized for falling victim to one of the many great teams in the Western Conference, sometimes that’s just the way things go. 

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The time is now for James Harden. How he responds to the call could be his next step towards being immortalized in not only Rockets, but NBA history. But you know what? So could another heartbreaking defeat, because if there’s ONE thing watching NBA basketball has taught me, sometimes it takes a breakdown to get to a breakthrough.

Good luck this postseason James, the world will be watching, and I will be cheering. Do your thing.

*Bryant’s playoff numbers are from the 1998-99, and 1999-00 postseasons, the first in which he played more than 25 minutes per game. 

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