James Harden had a difficult night in Game 7 on Wednesday by most accounts. The three-time scoring champion finished Houston's 104-102 win with just 17 points on 4-15 shooting, including a 1-9 mark from three. Had the Rockets lost, Harden would have to endure one of the longest offseasons in recent memory. But Houston is still alive thanks to one of the top plays of Harden's career.
The Rockets were hanging on by a thread against Chris Paul and the Thunder down the stretch in Game 7, holding a one-point lead as Oklahoma City dribbled up the floor with 20 seconds remaining. Harden began the possession sagging off the three-point line, and as the ball swung to the right side, he ducked into the lane to cover center Steven Adams. A skip pass from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sent the ball to Luguentz Dort on the left wing, setting up a potential game-winning three. But Harden was ready to make a play.
Houston's MVP darted across the floor to block Dort's shot, securing the lead as the clock neared zero. It wasn't a pretty Game 7 on Wednesday. Few ever are. But when crunch-time arrived, Harden was ready to seal the victory.
"Everything is great when you're making shots, but we found some guts and grinded it out defensively," Harden said postgame. "Our shot making ability is going to come, and when it does it's going to be scary. But our defense has been very solid."
Harden's defensive heroics may have been a relative shock to many, but to the Rockets, it was simply a continuation of his play throughout the season. Harden has evolved into more than a middling defender in 2019-20. He's often effective, and in spurts, downright dominant. Harden led the NBA in steals this season. He's one of the league's stoutest post defenders. Perhaps his reputation as a poor defender was fair in the last decade. It's largely a fallacy in 2020.
"[Harden] has been playing defense. If media actually looked at numbers, you’d get your answers," Rockets guard Russell Westbrook said postgame. "Steals, deflections, his defensive net rating, whatever that s--- is, he’s up there."
The Rockets desperately need Harden to return to form offensively to have any shot at defeating the Lakers. LeBron James remains perhaps the league's most feared playoff performer, and Anthony Davis should feast against the small-ball Rockets. Both of Houston's MVPs need to score in bunches to keep up. But a Game 7 is often about far more than star power and scoring punch. Houston ground Oklahoma City's offense to a halt down the stretch on Wednesday, punctuated by Harden's clutch block. The play didn't just help send the Rockets to the second round. It served as validation of Harden's work throughout the season.
"I've been locked in all year long, trying to be better on that side of the ball," Harden said. "Tonight there was a huge emphasis on it and I came up with the big block to win the game."