We all may have begun to look at the potential second-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers a bit too early, and now that the Oklahoma City Thunder have forced a Game 7, all eyes will be on James Harden.
What better chance for him to go out and silence his critics?
Out of all of the criticism Harden has faced through his years as a franchise player, “choke artist”, is the one that has plagued his name the most, and if the Rockets are eliminated in the first round, he may never escape that label.
He and the Rockets have had their chances to end the Thunder’s season but have struggled to put them away in crunch time.
In Game 3, Houston led 99-94 with 2:00 left in the game, OKC trimmed the lead and then took it. With nine seconds left, Daniel House was fouled while trailing 94-93. He split the free throws and the Thunder won in overtime, 119-107. Harden had four points on 1-4 shooting in the fourth quarter.
During Game 4, the Rockets once again held a lead late in the fourth quarter. This time Houston led 108-107 with 1:41 left on the clock after a layup from Jeff Green. OKC took the lead, got a stop, and sank their free throws to secure a 117-114 victory and tie the series at 2-2. Harden had seven points on 3-7 shooting in the fourth quarter.
On Monday in Game 6, OKC once again came back, this time to tie the series 3-3. When Harden sank a technical free throw with 4:19 left in the game, it gave Houston a 98-92 lead. From that point on, the Rockets shot 1-6 and committed three turnovers which allowed OKC to come from behind and capture a 104-100 victory. Harden had six points on 1-6 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Throughout their time in the bubble, ESPN and TNT announcers have emphasized the fact that Oklahoma City has been the best team in crunch time this season. After being beaten in the final few minutes of the fourth quarter on three different occasions, the Rockets can now attest to that.
Harden, it’s your time.
Despite the fourth-quarter woes in the losses, Harden has been pretty special overall. Dating back to the beginning of the series, Harden has scored 37, 21, 38, 32, 31, and 31 which is an average of 31 points per game while shooting 48% from the field.
Now ideally, the Rockets will come out and handle their business, finding themselves sitting on a double-digit lead as the game comes to a close. But let’s face it, this series has been far from ideal. So if crunch time comes calling, it’s gotta be up to The Beard to answer. Game 7s are for great players, and the Rockets will need Harden to be great in the clutch if they’re going to avoid a potentially franchise altering first-round upset.