Lowe: Lakers-Rockets is James Harden’s massive chance to rewrite his reputationon September 4, 2020 at 12:47 pm

Close your eyes and try to picture it: When was James Harden‘s last capital “M” playoff moment before his flying block on Luguentz Dort to help seal the Houston RocketsGame 7 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder?

Unless you include the bad ones — we’ll get to those — you might reach back to Game 5 of the 2012 Western Conference finals, when Harden drilled a step-back triple over Kawhi Leonard to give the Thunder a five-point lead over the San Antonio Spurs with 28.8 seconds left.

That’s partly because of how our brains work — and don’t work. We celebrate winners, remember their Moments, and Harden’s Rockets have never won the whole thing. So we don’t remember Harden (temporarily) saving Houston’s season in Game 3 of last year’s conference semifinals against the Golden State Warriors; Harden drained two free throws to tie it with 38.7 seconds left in regulation, and added seven points on 3-of-4 shooting in overtime — including a step-back 3 to open a six-point lead with 49 seconds left.

Rockets-Lakers Game 1 (Friday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App)

Instead, we remember Houston losing Games 5 and 6 with Kevin Durant injured. Harden’s step-back 3 over Stephen Curry to cut Golden State’s lead in Game 6 to 102-100 with 2:47 left — a monster shot by any measure — is erased. Harden scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the fourth quarter, but you can’t picture any of those baskets, right? You might be able to conjure images of his fourth-quarter turnovers — four of them, including two hideous ones in the last three minutes: a needless push-off of Draymond Green, and then Harden burping up a lazy, inaccurate inbounds pass in the general direction of Chris Paul, only for Klay Thompson to steal it with 1:25 left and Golden State up 5.

The stuff we see last overwhelms what came before when there is no narrative thread connecting events. Harden’s Game 3 heroics against the Warriors didn’t lead to a series win, or a championship, and so — poof — they’re gone.

And that’s not entirely unfair, both in general and in the specific case of Harden. Game 6 does matter more than Game 3. Harden’s finest elimination game was a 45-point performance on 13-of-22 shooting in Game 4 of the 2015 conference finals against the Warriors — a series Golden State led 3-0. It’s great that Harden gave us a masterpiece. But how much was really at stake?

Possessions in a tight fourth quarter matter more than possessions in a tight second quarter. The fewer chances you have left, the more impact each one has on the outcome.

Later-round series matter way, way more than first-round series. How many first-round series — even ultracompetitive ones — feature two teams with a chance to win the championship? Most are chalk walkovers. Harden scoring 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting (while fighting an illness) in Game 5 of Houston’s 2013 first-round series against the top-seeded Thunder was a nice building block in his first year as franchise star, and it pulled Houston to within 3-2 — after the Rockets had fallen behind 3-0. But we all knew the Thunder were winning that series.

The Utah Jazz were so scared of Harden in last season’s first round, they ditched their base defense to account for him. The gambit failed. That is power.

Now and then, an upstart pushes a contender to the limit in Round 1. Think of the seven-gamer between the top-seeded Spurs and 49-win Dallas Mavericks in 2014. This season’s Rockets have championship ambitions. If they upset the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals starting Friday night, Harden’s swat of Dort will take on greater meaning — become more than what it is now: a gritty, winning hustle play that redeemed another bad Harden elimination game (this one against a noncontender). That block was a moment, an important one, but not quite a capital “M” moment. This series gives Harden a chance to craft one.

In 15 games with the Rockets facing elimination since 2013, Harden has averaged 26 points on 40.6% shooting — including 42-of-124 (33.9%) from deep — with 90 assists and 79 turnovers, per ESPN Stats & Information research. The Rockets were plus-7 combined in those games with Harden on the floor. (His numbers are not much different in Houston closeout games.)

In all playoff games during Harden’s time in Houston in which the score was within five points during the last five minutes, Harden is 41-of-108 (38%) and 9-of-50 (18%) on 3s, per ESPN Stats & Info. He has dished 13 dimes and committed 19 turnovers. Houston is minus-19 in those minutes.

Zoom into super-crunch-time — score within three, under three minutes in playoff games — and Harden as a Rocket is 17-of-50 (34%) and 3-of-19 from deep with an even assist-to-turnover ratio.

Boiling down a team’s success or failure to the performance of one star can be facile. No superstar wins alone. But stars drive winning in basketball more than in any other major sport. A star can compensate for off games from role players. An off game from a star can be a death knell. Westbrook faces the same general pressure, but Harden has weightier historical stature to claim. He has four top-two MVP finishes to one for Westbrook. Harden has made five of the last six All-NBA first teams, with another almost certainly coming soon; Westbrook has made two total.

To his credit, Harden has scored almost a point per minute in postseason clutch time, thanks to heaps of free throws. He’s a 90% shooter from the line in those attempts, and that’s important. (Ask the Bucks.)

It’s not even fair to say Harden always shies from the moment — that he is completely lacking in some fundamental courage most superstars have in their internal wiring. On Wednesday night, he scooted past Dort for a go-ahead layup with 3:39 left and notched what ended up the game-winning dime with a bullet to P.J. Tucker in the corner.

Most stars see their numbers fall off at the end of tight playoff games. It’s hard to shoot a high percentage against elite defenses gearing everything against you. A lot of Harden’s highest-leverage games came against a dynastic Warriors team. Tough sledding for anyone.

But the falloff for Harden is larger than for most stars. Sometimes it is cataclysmic: 2-of-11 with six turnovers in a season-ending, 39-point Game 6 loss in 2017 to a Spurs team missing both Leonard and Tony Parker — a performance so bad, so passive, it sparked rumors (never substantiated, to my knowledge) Harden might have played through a concussion. That wasn’t even Harden’s first 2-of-11 elimination game; he put up that same shooting line, with 12 (!) turnovers, in Game 5 of the 2015 conference finals against Golden State. Houston’s epic Game 6 comeback against the Clippers in the previous round came with Harden on the bench. He was solid in Game 7 of that LA series: 31 points on 7-of-20 shooting, with 15 free throws.

Rewatch some of Houston’s biggest recent playoff games, and you start wondering whether those crunch-time numbers — underwhelming as they might be — actually exaggerate Harden’s clutch scoring. He has a lot of “too little, too late” points. In Game 6 against Golden State last season, Harden hit a layup to cut the Warriors’ lead to three with 58 seconds left, and then a 3-pointer to trim an eight-point deficit to five with 24 ticks remaining.

Two days earlier in Game 5 — the game in which Durant suffered a calf injury — Harden rumbled for a layup to slash Golden State’s lead to three with 18.6 seconds left: an important shot, but one that still left Houston relying on Golden State turnovers or missed free throws.

In Game 7 of the 2018 conference finals against the Warriors, four of Harden’s late-game points came when Golden State — up between nine and 11 — conceded layups to guard against 3s. The Rockets had a chance to make it a game when they had the ball, down 99-92 with 47 seconds left; Harden missed a 3.

Houston played Games 6 and 7 of that series without Chris Paul. That was Harden’s best Houston team. He played 621 minutes over 17 playoff games. Remarkably, only six came in the last three minutes of games when the score was within three points, per NBA.com. Only 13 fell into the broader five-minutes/five-points bucket.

That is one reason Harden’s playoff resume feels lacking in Moments: His most important postseason was one of blowouts, in both directions. Harden and those Rockets were so good as to often render crunch-time unnecessary. Blowouts are the goal! Houston piling up so many is a testament to Harden’s greatness. It’s unfair that Harden scoring 41 points on 14-of-24 shooting in Game 1 against the Warriors in 2018 — the year Houston took perhaps the greatest team ever to seven games — gets overlooked because Golden State won going away (by 13). The game isn’t that close without Harden. But it was Game 1, not Game 7, and it wasn’t close.

But the same level of greatness has not carried over to the biggest moments in the closest games.

Harden’s defense down the stretch has been unreliable, as in the run of play. He does have a penchant for pivotal defensive highlights and hustle plays. He had three alone over Games 6 and 7 against Oklahoma City: the Dort block; a fantastic vertical challenge to disrupt a Steven Adams‘ fast-break floater with 1:20 to go in Game 6 and the score tied; and a soaring save of Russell Westbrook‘s air ball in the last minute of that game. Those are winning plays. You only make them if you read the game at a high level and are willing to get grimy. You don’t make them if you are afraid. They are part of Harden’s story, too.

But Harden did not seem to want the ball late in that game. He handed the offense to Westbrook. With about 1:20 left, Robert Covington had the ball on the left wing; Harden was up top, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander blanketing him. Covington stared at Harden, probably hoping Harden might flash toward midcourt for a pass. Covington wanted no part of dribbling. Harden flinched, failed to ditch Gilgeous-Alexander, and then retreated. Covington looked elsewhere. It was strange. Harden’s story can get strange.

Those three hustle plays don’t wipe away all the blow-bys Oklahoma City inflicted on Harden in hunting him down the stretch, especially in Games 3 and 4. He offered no resistance, letting ball handlers scoot by as if it were the responsibility of someone else — someone behind him — to contain them.

Harden has always been good at putting out emergencies on defense. But a good defense, one that withstands the challenge of superstars and elite offenses, prides itself on preventing emergencies.

Passing the baton on defense is baked into Houston’s switch-everything scheme, a system that seems tailored as much to Harden’s personal preferences as to Daryl Morey’s secret math that (apparently) suggests switching is optimal.

It is impossible now to untangle the Rockets from Harden. He is them, they are him. Their mutual doctrinaire approach to shot selection might be harming Harden’s late-game production. The world knows Harden doesn’t want midrange shots. That leaves two options: his step-back 3, and driving into a thicket of waiting bodies.

Pull-up 3s strain tired legs. The best defenses excel at the help-and-recover game. They disguise coverages, swarm the rim, invade passing lanes, leave you with only the jump-pass you don’t feel comfortable making.

They yield airspace in the midrange. The spike in Harden’s late-game turnovers is in part the result of his reluctance to explore that airspace.

(That right-to-left pass has always been the toughest one for Harden. He can’t put as much pace on it. Defenses know.)

Even so, Harden’s crunch-time reel appears to have a slightly higher percentage of floaters than his overall shooting dossier. He has made a bunch! They look smooth. So does his midrange step-back. Maybe he should take more late.

The math behind Harden’s shot selection — and Houston’s — is right in the aggregate. Isolation play, Harden’s general preference, tends to reduce turnovers. But all of that might not hold for Harden late in games.

Harden seems to thrive when he has a sense of control — when the shots he likes are available, and the flow suits him. Championship teams win games they can’t control the way they are accustomed to. They pivot to different strategies. They find methods of wresting back that stylistic control.

Harden can withdraw when the game spirals outside his wheelhouse — when there is adversity. When he cedes control of the ball, he too often becomes a spectator. He recedes toward half court or the sideline, standing and watching instead of seizing the game. Zero in on Harden, and you notice how often he vanishes from your screen.

Harden still draws attention there; he’s James freaking Harden. It is unreasonable to expect every ballhandling supernova to be Curry — always flitting about, screening everything, relocating to dark corners.

But there is a huge middle ground between that and what Harden does away from the ball. Sometimes, all it would take for him to become a threat is sliding five feet one way or the other along the arc — what someone like Danny Green does on every possession.

This was part of the design in trading for Paul, and then trading Paul for Westbrook: generating easier buckets for Harden. Sometimes, it happens:

Harden has been a willing pick-and-roll screener over the years. Playing with more variety — opening himself to backup plans — might help him and Houston late in close games.

Maybe Harden is so mentally or physically fried from dozens upon dozens of one-on-one attacks that he can only fall back on what is comfortable in crunch time. That fatigue theory has been popular, though both Harden and Mike D’Antoni have downplayed it publicly.

But Harden chose that isolation style, or at least participated in Houston’s evolution there. It is one that discourages Danny Green-esque off-ball movement, and the swing-swing sequences that propel it.

Houston has geared everything toward Harden. When Harden’s relationship with Paul soured, they exchanged the Point God for Harden’s old pal — sacrificing two first-round picks and two swaps to do it. When the combination of Westbrook and Clint Capela became an impediment to Harden’s drives, the Rockets traded Capela and another first-round pick for Covington.

Harden is worth it. He might be the greatest one-on-one player ever. His greatness is inexorable, exhausting for defenders, scary for opponents to contemplate. He walks onto the court with 30 points. He is an offense unto himself, almost an automatic playoff berth, and, yes, what he does in the regular season — the metronomic relentlessness of his scoring — matters, too.

He is nearing 21,000 career points. If he averages 2,200 per season — a shade under his average since 2014 — for the next seven seasons, he will approach Karl Malone‘s career scoring total (No. 2 all time).

On the Bill Simmons Podcast earlier this season, I called Harden something like the guard version of Malone: piling up monstrous regular-season totals and advancing far in every postseason without a signature Moment — without ever giving you the feeling that They Got This in a big game.

Malone did not redefine the boundaries of basketball the way Harden has in pioneering the step-back triple. Harden just turned 31. The clock is ticking, but he should still have some chances.

This series against Los Angeles is one. The Lakers are not indomitable. They have been a poor shooting team and average half-court offense all season. LeBron is the best player in the series, but recent MVP votes suggest Harden is No. 2. The Lakers have no one who can stay in front of Harden.

If Houston shoots well and commits to the hard stuff — especially transition defense, long a weak point for Harden and Westbrook — the Rockets should give themselves a chance. (I picked Lakers in six, for the record.)

Harden’s postseason story is messy, and sometimes unpleasant, but it’s not finished.

NBA schedule: Rockets-Lakers Game 1 (Fri., 9 p.m. ET, ESPN)

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