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Rockets’ Big Three has turned into a Big One

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The Beard’s taking blame, but we should instead be looking at two other guys who have yet to play their best.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden is likely going to take a lot of criticism (already seeing it in the Twitter sludge pool) after the Houston Rockets dropped a tough Game 5 to the Golden State Warriors, because that’s the story of The Beard’s life. Granted, he did only score 5 fourth-quarter points, but he was being consistently trapped, doubled, and occasionally even tripled by the Dubs.

Harden decided to make the correct basketball call and defer to his teammates, and it theoretically should have worked. The Rockets shot 56 percent in the fourth quarter, their highest percentage by far of any quarter in the game. That happened solely due to the focus being paid to The Beard.

The Rockets even outrebounded Golden State in the period, but they coughed up the ball up 3 times as opposed to zero turnovers by the Dubs in the frame, and that, along with Golden State’s five three-pointers in the fourth to the Rockets’ three, was ultimately the difference in a five-point game.

I’ve seen Harden get busted up for being too passive, with some people saying he should have put his stamp on the game. But the thing is, Harden would be also be taking criticism if he decided to go all Westbrookian Hero Ball and shoot his way through the fourth quarter double teams and traps. That’s the life of the league’s most scrutinized superstar.

Despite the NBA’s focus on big names, this is still a team game. Hakeem Olajuwon doesn’t have two rings without the clutch shooting performances of Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, Vernon Maxwell, and Clyde Drexler whenever Dream was being doubled and tripled.

Harden took the right approach to the situation despite it not working out with a win. That can happen, you know. You can make mostly the correct decisions in real time from a strategic standpoint and still lose. That’s still a damn formidable Dubs squad even at less than full strength.

Make no mistake, James Harden is not your problem. In fact, outside of P.J. Tucker and Iman Shumpert (and 4 good minutes from Nene), The Beard was one of the few who actually showed up in Wednesday night’s Game 5 defeat. He finished with 31 points on 10-16 shooting to go along with 8 assists, 4 rebounds, and 4 steals. Meanwhile, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, and Austin Rivers shot a combined 12-44 from the field (double yuck).

After Houston’s Game 2 loss in Oakland, I wrote this piece detailing why the Rockets needed more from both Harden and CP3. Since then, The Beard has been fantastic, while Paul’s play has slipped even further down the abyss.

In the past three games of the series, Harden is averaging 36.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1 block per game on 48 percent shooting from the field. Consequently, Paul is averaging just 12.6 points per game on a basement-bottom 33 percent from the field to go along with 7.3 boards, 6 assists, and 1.3 steals over the same time frame. He has yet to have a real signature moment in the series. He’s looked slow, unable to make that key first step past a defender.

I need not remind you that Paul has underwhelmed most of the year and most of us defended him, predicting that he’d step up when the Rockets needed him most. That can still happen. The Rockets aren’t eliminated yet. But they’re going to need Paul to be much, much better if they’re going to come back and win this series.

I also need not remind you that Paul’s contract averages a cool $40 mill a year over the next three seasons, but that’s a conversation for when the season is over.

Then there’s the final third of Houston’s Big Three. Clint Capela’s been, quite frankly, mostly awful. His averages for the series of 8.6 points, 10 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks on 56 percent shooting are all well below his season figures.

But perhaps worse than raw box numbers is that Capela has looked sluggish and disinterested, so much so that he can barely stay on the floor against Golden State’s smaller, quicker lineup. This was a matchup Capela publicly asked for, he got it, and he’s currently shrinking from it.

I should probably remind you that Capela is still just 24 years old. That’s still pretty young by professional athlete standards. He’s not yet reached physical, mental, or emotional maturity. But all those excuses disappeared the moment the big man signed a five-year, $90 million contract in the offseason.

He officially became part of Houston’s Big Three, and the Rockets are going to need some contributions from him in order to come back against this opponent. It’s no coincidence that his best game of the series in Game 3 was one of Houston’s two victories.

They can still get two more. It’s still true that the Rockets have been practically unbeatable over the past two seasons when Harden, Paul, and Capela have all been healthy and playing. And they’ve beaten the Dubs in Oracle both this season and last, so they know what it takes.

But it’s not going to happen as long as the Rockets have a Big One instead of a Big Three.