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Searching for answers after James Harden’s unbelievable Game 6 collapse

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Tired? Disinterested? Sick? We respond to every theory on James Harden from NBA writers.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Houston was predictably apoplectic about James Harden following the Houston Rockets devastating Game 6 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Playoffs. It split in two distinct camps of warring irrationality:

1. James Harden and Moreyball can never get the Rockets to the promised land.

2. Name DeShaun Watson the Texans starting quarterback already.

A raging battle of disregard between one of the NBA’s top five players and a fruit fly attention span requiring an argument about Texans quarterbacks as consistent as the tides. What a time to be alive.

In search of more cognizant discussion over Harden’s “famously huge turd” of a Game 6, I read everything I could from NBA writers. There are a lot of thoughts and opinions out there and I had an idea...

Let’s do a The Dream Shake mailbag using all the articles and thoughts about James Harden floating in the Internet. So here we go. Every thought on James Harden in one place:

Juliet Litman, The Ringer: Game 6 wipes away Harden’s regular season

“The heated MVP race among Harden, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook feels like a distant memory now, and Harden’s best season to date will be remembered with an asterisk. Maybe there’s extreme recency bias — that which comes within an hour of an event ending — but how can Harden’s 2016–17 season end on the same level as the other three players’?”

An asterisk? Like how MLB’s home run record has an asterisk on it?

Is there an Oklahoma City billionaire looking to buy the 2010 MVP trophy from LeBron James to burn an asterisk on it because the King’s Game 5 performance in the second round proved Kevin Durant was the real MVP?

In reality, these plots have already been written. Leonard or James will be immortalized if they beat the Warriors and called “the best player in the world.” If they come up short their seasons will be recognized as a noble run stopped by a historic juggernaut. Russell Westbrook will always be remembered for winning the MVP award while recording a triple-double.

James Harden will be the unfortunate also-ran who recorded one of the best statistical seasons of all time. Yes, his game six will be fodder for Jim Rome, Bill Simmons and Colin Cowherd to use as a simile during future disastrous playoff performances. But it is absolutely “extreme recency bias” to assume this taints Harden’s entire season when five years from now you’ll pull lists of the best offensive seasons ever and Harden’s name will still be there.

Dieter Kurtenbach, Fox Sports: This was the defining moment of Harden’s career

“Because by the looks of it, it appears that James Harden, one of the favorites to win the MVP award this year, followed up his terrible clutch performance in Game 5 with an even worse Game 6.

“An all-time bad Game 6.

“A performance so woeful, so puzzling, that it has to go down as the defining moment of Harden’s season.

“A performance so listless, it has to go down as the defining moment of Harden’s career.”

“...the defining moment of Harden’s career.” Uh-huh.

The game was bad. Historically bad. Sportscasters will forever bring it up alongside “he was once teammates with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.” They should.

NBA players are rarely defined by sub-par performances or a missed shot. Harden’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory and will likely make the playoffs another four times at minimum. If he continues to underwhelm in the playoffs and big games then it’s a lasting narrative, not a theory validated by a defining moment.

Chris Paul has never made a Western Conference Finals and Tracy McGrady never made it out of the first round (Spurs don’t count). Neither of those have a defining moment. They’re nagging and dispiriting narratives.

Equating Harden’s dismal game six to a Bill Buckner, Scott Norwood or Nick Anderson style moment is an exaggeration.

Skip Bayless, Fox Sports: Harden unraveled under the pressure

“This was the biggest superstar meltdown we have witnessed since LeBron James in the 2011 NBA Finals. No Kawhi Leonard. No Tony Parker – both of whom were NBA Finals MVPs. All the pressure was on the home team to hold serve with no Kawhi and get it back to San Antonio for Game 7. And right on cue, James Harden unraveled under that pressure. Couldn’t even take a shot for the first quarter and a half. And the truth is, it was pretty predictable. James Harden has always had some LeBron in him. When the lights are brightest and the stakes are highest, he tends to shrink or melt under that pressure.”

It’s fair to say James Harden does not have the best track record in big playoff games.

But was this a giant-huge pressure-lights are brightest-stakes are highest situation?

It was a ‘must win game.’ But it was also on home court and the Rockets knew the Spurs best player wouldn’t be touching the court. As far as an elimination game six goes, that’s pretty much as low pressure as they get. And there’s no chance this game came with the pressure of the Thunder-Heat Finals.

This reality makes it worse that Harden shrunk in this moment, but it illustrates the inconsistency in the anti-Harden narrative. Leonard wasn’t playing so Harden should have blown the roof off the building, but this was a high pressure game and Harden always collapses in these games. Also... LeBron James isn’t that good despite his titles and MVP trophies. Yawn.

Des Bieler & Matt Bonesteel, Washington Post: Did Harden have a concussion?

“Harden’s Game 6 flop — on his home court, no less — was such a head-scratcher that it had some observers considering an intriguing possibility. What if he had been playing with the aftereffects of a concussion he suffered late in Game 5?

“That was a question being posed by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, among others. There has been no indication from the Rockets that Harden had suffered a brain injury in Tuesday’s overtime loss to the Spurs, but he did fall to the court after taking an elbow to the head from San Antonio big man Pau Gasol, and it could explain his struggles at the end of Game 5 and throughout a desultory Game 6.”

Honestly I asked this question myself during the game. The beard was gun-shy and made several inexplicable decisions resulting in turnovers. There was even a play where Harden failed to corral an inbound pass from Capela resulting in a turnover.

I take Harden’s word for it. But after watching Game 6 again over the weekend I’m not certain I should.

Stephen A. Smith, ESPN: Harden was drugged

“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how to explain it. There needs to be an investigation. Somebody might have slipped something into his drink. Somebody might have done something to him. I have no clue, but it is not James Harden. That was not James Harden that showed up for the Houston Rockets tonight. Somebody with his jersey showed up. It wasn’t him.”

You would hope that a cavalier attitude to the idea of drugging would result in Smith apologizing and tithing some of his endowment from ESPN to buy rape kits in an under-served community.

Nope. This was said on SportsCenter.

Tracy McGrady, ESPN: Harden should be embarrassed

“I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen James when there’s an amount of pressure built up in a game and he doesn’t show me who he was in the regular season. There’s no justification for this. I’m embarrassed for him. He should be embarrassed. He should apologize to the fan base, to his teammates, to the coaching staff for that lackluster effort.”

Damn.

Going back to the previous take, if Harden was not hurt, sick or concussed there’s truth in McGrady saying “there’s no justification for this.”

But for the rest of this, I’ll just politely say McGrady may not be the best messenger here.

Also, does T-Mac qualify as a “Rockets legend?” Love him to death and remember his best moments vividly. But his number isn’t retired and Houston never made it out of the first round of the playoffs with him on the court.

Just a small question for whoever titled this YouTube video.

Andrew Sharp, Sports Illustrated: Game 6 is a talking point that will haunt Harden

“That was a game that'll stick with Harden for the rest of his career. That sounds dramatic and unfair, and it's probably both of those things, but it's also just a fact. Every time Harden does something incredible over the next few years, someone will bring up Thursday night's loss to the Spurs. Every time someone calls him an MVP candidate, someone will use Game 6 to discount his case. Every time someone calls him a top-five player—a perfectly reasonable claim—someone will laugh out loud and pull up highlights of Harden staggering around on national television and getting blown out Dejounte Murray and Jonathon Simmons. Half the fun in following basketball is getting way too serious about completely meaningless, wildly subjective arguments, and Harden just gave the whole world a talking point that'll be tough to refute.”

Excuse me while I wave the smoke away from my computer after this explosion from Andrew Sharp’s rational levelheaded take cannon.

These words strung together by this man make the most sense of any James Harden Game 6 take I have read.

Zach Lowe, ESPN: The Spurs deserve kudos for their defense on Harden

Lowe wrote extensively about the series and its trends, not James Harden’s Game 6. His thoughts once again proved why he’s one of the most highly respected minds watching the NBA as he details the Spurs’ approach to slowing Harden down:

“Kawhi Leonard, who got the Harden assignment more or less full-time after Game 1, chased Harden over picks while Gasol hung back. The three other San Antonio defenders stuck close to Houston shooters. They would concede floaters. They would not concede 3s. They would not foul, even at the rim: just put your arms straight up, jump as high as those old legs allow, and hope Harden misses. Gasol's superior (to Lee) offensive rebounding, post passing, and outside shooting meant the swap worked on both ends.

“It was a less extreme version of how Oklahoma City defended Harden. Both teams dared Houston to beat them with drives and contested shots in the paint. The Spurs are just smarter, better, and more disciplined than the Thunder in avoiding fouls. They knew the Rockets would not accept whatever midrange shots, even open ones, the Spurs gave.”

This is why Lowe gets so much love from folks like me. Instead of crafting a raft for Harden’s viking funeral he details how the Spurs drove Harden to dejection with their defensive schemes.

Harden shot eight or fewer free throws in five of the six games in the Spurs series. He averages 8.1 free throws a game for his career! He took 10.9 per game in the regular season. Here’s his totals from this series: 5, 6, 11, 6, 8, 6.

You can certainly rag on Harden’s play, his body language and lack of effort in Game 6. But when you read Lowe you understand where it came from. The Spurs denied James Harden his game for almost an entire series.