The Inexplicable Meltdown Of James Harden

0:49 | NBA
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Friday May 12th, 2017

In the playoffs, at home, after of months of MVP campaigning from everyone associated with the Rockets, against a Spurs team that was missing its only All-Star, James Harden had 10 points. In the first half, he took two shots. Houston was down 19 at halftime. In the second half it got worse. Harden finished 2-of-11 from the floor with six turnovers and six fouls. The Rockets lost by 39 points. 

When we think of legendary playoff games it usually means games where a superstar breaks through and baffles everyone with a comeback, or a shot, or a block that resonates with people forever. Last night in Houston was the other kind of legendary.  

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.

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For the record, it wasn't just Harden who no-showed. Ryan Anderson had 14 points and 6 rebounds in Game 1, not to mention defense that helped limit LaMarcus Aldridge to four points. The Rockets won that game by 27. In Game 6 Anderson was 0-of-6 from the floor with 0 points, and Aldridge spent long stretches of the night looking like a young Olajuwon next to the Houston big men. It was that kind of night for everyone. 

Eric Gordon went 2-of-9 for 6 points. Patrick Beverley had 7 points. Clint Capela was 3-of-11 from the floor despite never taking a shot outside five feet. Houston made nine two-point shots all night. Nine. At least Trevor Ariza had 20 points and five boards? I don't know. 

All year long this Rockets team has been dispelling stereotypes. They couldn't play defense, Mike D'Antoni wasn't an elite coach, they shot too many threes, Ryan Anderson wasn't worth $80 million, James Harden wasn't a leader, couldn't produce in the playoffs, etc. Every dumb Rockets stereotype was validated in Game 6. It's not to say they can't fix those problems next year, and they still had an amazing regular season this year. But at least for a night, they proved every skeptic right.  

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None of it was more stunning than Harden. His story actually started at the end of Game 5. In a one-possession game with Kawhi Leonard on the sidelines by the end, Harden finished 1-of-6 from the floor with four turnovers through the end of the fourth quarter and overtime. He looked sluggish the entire time. He blew one look at a game-winner in regulation, and then 39-year-old Manu Ginobili tricked him into a block on a game-tying three in overtime. Then came Game 6 and the 39-point loss. 

"He’s been battling that cold, but nothing that I know of," Mike D'Antoni said when reporters asked if there was anything more to Harden's struggles. "You’ll have to talk to him." 

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When pressed, D'Antoni added: "If it’s OK with you guys, I don’t really want to litigate what just happened. It happens. I told the guys, they had an unbelievable year. We were above all expectations. They battled like crazy. For whatever reason this game, we didn’t have the juice, we didn’t have the stuff."

The most incredible thing about watching Harden was the lack of urgency. It started at the end of Game 5 and it continued in Game 6. He was deferring to teammates on almost every possession, but even his passes were careless. He played like all of this was happening at the end of February road trip. He wasn't completely detached, but he never seemed engaged, either. Maybe he was hurt? Maybe the shot to the head in Game 5 did more damage than anyone realized? If he was healthy it's much harder to explain. 

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Plenty of people will denounce overreactions after Game 6, but I think that criticism's misplaced. That game was surreal. There were long stretches of Harden offense that left me speechless, and as the night went on I got lots of text messages like this one. It's one thing to miss shots, it's another to not even take them. Unless there's something we don't know, it's a playoff memory that'll be inexplicable for years. 

Some of the narrative is melodramatic, of course. Some of it's unfair. Some of it can feel random, too. Aldridge had his horrendous game at the beginning of this series and then put up 34 and 12 last night, so no one will ever mention Game 1 again.

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But all of this is what makes the NBA playoffs irresistible. Basketball has more superstars than the other three American sports combined. Each facial expression is caught on camera, every funny quote goes viral, and stars gradually become vivid characters that every sports fan can recognize. Then the playoffs start, and those stars are graded on a curve that becomes more impossible the better they get. They have to carry teams, dispel stupid criticisms, win titles, and come through in moments that will define their reputations in ways that aren't completely rational—and the rest of the world watches them try to respond. 

It's a truly ridiculous equation, but it can give us memories like Dirk in 2011, KG in '08, Ray Allen in 2013, or LeBron last year. And then sometimes it gives us memories like Harden against the Spurs.  

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