The Houston Rockets are standing where a lot of people never thought they would be. They’re currently on the precipice of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals since 1995, needing just one more win to secure it after a 98-94 win over the defending champion and purported greatest team of all-time Golden State Warriors in a second consecutive slugfest.
They now have two more games, including another at the Toyota Center, to snag one more victory and slay the Goliath Warriors, who were heavily favored in this series despite a worse regular season record than Houston. Ideally, you’d like to close this thing out in six games, because despite Game 7 taking place in friendly confines, you know what they say: in a one-game series, anything can happen.
And not only that, but the Rockets have proven they have no trouble winning at The Oracle. In fact, they’ve taken two out of three on year (regular season and playoffs combined) on the Dubs’ home court. It’s not an outrageous expectation to not even want to bother with returning to Houston.
But if they’re going to get over this largest of humps and shock the world by getting the Warriors out of there in six, they’re going to need a better performance from James Harden.
The Beard is currently mired in one of, if not the worst shooting slump of his career, going 0-11 from deep in Thursday night’s Game 5, and missing 20 straight total from beyond the arc after also going 0-9 in the second half of Game 4.
Since exploding for 41 points on 14-24 from the field and 5-9 from three in Game 1, Harden’s shot has dropped off precipitously. In Games 2 through 5, he shot just 36 percent overall from the field and is a frigid 10-43 from beyond the arc.
Sure, these games have been a lot grimier than anyone anticipated. What was supposed to be an offensive tour de force and clash of scoring philosophy has turned into a heavyweight fight of getting stops featuring two of the best defensive units in the league. Harden isn’t the only superstar struggling with his shot.
Both Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are shooting just 44 percent from the field since Game 1, well below their normal averages. Chris Paul is shooting 39 percent over that same time frame. Klay Thompson is shooting 40 percent after Game 1.
The series has evolved into a slowed-down, iso-heavy, defensive grind, so it seems natural then that Harden’s shot would be struggling.
And he’s still contributing in other ways. He’s made some timely plays on defense. Even though he hasn’t been amazing defensively, he’s grabbed some key steals and pitched in with stops and help defense exactly when it’s been needed most. His drives to the hoop and the attention they draw have opened up opportunities for guys like Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Trevor Ariza, and P.J. Tucker. And he’s still averaging 27 points per game for the series (24 after Game 1).
But what is a concern is that there is some historical precedent for Harden’s shooting tailing off in the playoffs. He shot just 31 percent from deep in 2016, a five-game defeat to the Warriors, and he was an even worse 28 percent over 11 games in last year’s postseason, including the infamous Game 6 no-show against the San Antonio Spurs that defines his postseason legacy for many people.
Now this year, he’s shooting just 31 percent from deep again, which includes the aforementioned and current 0-20 slump.
The Beard is saying all the right things about his troubles, telling reporters after Game 5, “Who cares? I’m just missing shots, but we’re winning,” which is true, but with CP3 mising at least Game 6 and possibly more, the Rockets are going to need Harden to start cashing his jumper if they’re going to close this thing out.
Fair or nor fair, Harden’s so far built his playoff reputation off of what he’s failed to accomplish more than what he actually has, which is weird saying about a career 22-point-per-game playoff scorer. But it is undeniable that his shooting has routinely slipped almost every postseason in Houston.
The Beard was just named to his fourth first-team All-NBA selection and did so unanimously. He’s pretty much a lock to be named the NBA’s regular season MVP later this year. But despite all of that, the one thing he’s missing is a classic performance against a big-time opponent with serious stakes. The stakes don’t get much higher than upsetting the league’s defending champs to earn a trip to the NBA Finals.
If The Beard lays up a 40-burger to close out the Dubs on their own floor with no CP3, all that other stuff goes away. We’re not talking about his shooting percentages, and no one’s talking about the Spurs and Manu Ginobli or the Portland Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard.
But should the league’s most valuable player this season fail to step up when the Rockets need him the most, all that noise will only continue to grow.
The next several days will wind up as a piece of Harden’s legacy no matter what the final results are. So it’s time for The Beard to put it all to rest and close out the Dubs in Game 6.