OAKLAND, Calif. — The last time James Harden lost a game like this, he never got a chance to respond.
A little over one year ago, Harden suffered what was then the worst defeat of his career, a 39-point drubbing against the Spurs that ended the Rockets’ season in the second round. That Game 6 loss was distressing both because of the final score and because of its finality. Harden, one of the greatest offensive weapons the NBA has ever seen, went out with a whimper rather than with guns blazing.
But Stephen Curry sent Harden and the Rockets to a new low on Sunday, as the Warriors’ All-Star guard broke out of a shooting slump to score 18 of his game-high 35 points in a third-quarter flurry. Golden State rode Curry’s outburst to an eye-popping 126-85 victory in Game 3 of the West finals, dealing Houston its worst playoff loss in franchise history.
In truth, Curry dismantled the Rockets so thoroughly that his own mind could barely keep up. After missing 17 of his first 20 three-pointers in the series, an undaunted Curry pulled up from deep midway through the third quarter, drawing nothing but net. “I had amnesia,” he said later, relishing his ability to shake off his misses.
Having found his bearings, Curry immediately went back for more, torturing Harden with crossovers before stepping back into another ceiling-scraping three. He celebrated that one in vintage style, breaking into the type of extended shimmy that has long delighted the Oakland crowd and chafed purists. Not a minute later, Curry was driving hard through traffic, punctuating a floater with gesticulations to the baseline crowd and a rare profanity. “I blacked out,” he joked, when prodded about his slip of the tongue.
For Curry, his pure releases brought pure relief. His night might have opened with an expectant home crowd hanging on his every miss, but it ended with Houston humiliated. Warriors coach Steve Kerr praised Curry’s “mental toughness” following three days of questions about his errant shooting and physical well-being, knowing the psychic devastation that his point guard’s outbursts leave in their wake. “They gave us a haymaker and we went down,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said glumly, right on cue.
The West finals now hinge on whether the Rockets, blasted by D’Antoni for their “soft” play, have the requisite composure to prevent Curry’s game-changing run from becoming a series-tilting sequence. Such is Curry’s unique force: He can turn a close game into an identity crisis in three minutes flat. Did Golden State’s two-time MVP just deliver a one-hitter quitter?
The Rockets have spent months living up to their promise that this season would be different: They have won more games, defended more effectively, and played with greater consistency than at any point during Harden’s tenure. But now they are down 2–1 with Tuesday’s Game 4 at Oracle Arena, where Curry and the Warriors are undefeated in the playoffs since 2016.
Past versions of Harden’s Rockets have devolved and unraveled when confronted by similar stress. In a 2015 first-round series loss to Golden State, Houston was blown off the court by 35 points in Game 3 and sent home soundly in Game 5, a 14-point defeat in which Harden managed just 14 points. In the 2016 West finals against Golden State, Houston dropped Game 4 by 27 points and lost an embarrassing elimination Game 5 by 33 points. And then there was Harden’s no-show in last year’s loss to San Antonio, correctly derided as one of the most perplexing performances from an MVP-caliber player in recent history.
The pattern has been unmistakable: Once Harden and the Rockets lose hope in the playoffs, they collapse.
Unfortunately, there were red flags for Red Nation throughout Sunday night’s debacle. The Rockets’ offense ground down early, going more than four minutes in the first quarter without a field goal. Then, theoretically braced for Golden State’s trademark third-quarter pushes, Houston immediately conceded a 10-0 run out of halftime. With the deficit mounting, Houston folded up shop, attempting just one free throw as a team in the final 24 minutes.
Targeted repeatedly in defensive situations, Harden lived down to his reputation as a turnstile, grasping at air on the perimeter and turning his head off the ball to open cutting lanes behind him. While Curry bombed away, Harden and Chris Paul completely lost control of the game’s pace. As a result, the Rockets committed 19 turnovers, their most during the 2018 postseason. Curry managed to singlehandedly outscore Harden (20 points) and Paul (13 points) combined, with Harden posting a season-low minus-19 in 33 minutes.
When the dust settled, Sunday’s Game 3 surpassed the 2017 loss to the Spurs as the worst defeat of Harden’s career by point differential. The 2018 MVP favorite was left nearly speechless. Prompted for his thoughts on Curry’s stunning second-half turnaround, Harden shot an annoyed glance towards Paul before answering with zero interest and with as few words as possible: “He made shots.”
Harden has been here before, stumped for answers against the Warriors, who complement Curry’s shot-making with Kevin Durant’s steady brilliance, fierce team defense, and excellent ball movement. To be fair, it’s unreasonable to expect any individual player, even Harden or LeBron James, to have a comprehensive solution for the reigning champs’ devastating firepower.
Even so, Harden is now staring at a referendum on his reputation. In the wake of last year’s loss to the Spurs, Rockets management defended Harden and spent the offseason vastly improving his supporting cast. Houston’s blueprint has largely come to fruition, powered by the most complete campaign of Harden’s career and a veteran-dominated roster loaded with two-way players.
Despite those efforts, the loss to San Antonio left a stain, one that has endured through a season that produced a new franchise record for wins. If Harden were to slink into the summer again, so much apparent progress, both for this franchise player and for his team, would be at risk of coming undone. The only silver lining from Sunday’s record-setting 41-point defeat is that Harden gets at least two chances to push back on the most aggravating of labels: That he comes up small when it matters the most.
Harden need not lead the Rockets to a miraculous comeback in this series, but he must buck his history of crumbling.