The final minutes of Houston's Game 6 loss on Monday was supposed to feature a battle of former teammates. Chris Paul controlled every possession for Oklahoma City down the stretch, and the Rockets were expected to feed James Harden with a chance to close out the series. Houston didn't follow the assumed blueprint.
Harden attempted just one shot in the final four minutes of a 104-100 defeat, ceding a stream of possessions to Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon. The results weren't pretty. Westbrook tallied two turnovers and an air-ball in the final 90 seconds, and a missed three from Eric Gordon added to Houston's late-game struggles. As Game 6 slipped away, the 2017-18 MVP was largely invisible. The Rockets know that can't be the case if Game 7 is close in the fourth quarter.
“We just kept turning it over before [Harden] had a chance to get involved," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said on Tuesday. "There was a number of turnovers that probably shouldn’t happen. We’ll talk about it. He knows. He’ll be ready to go. It’s definitely something we want to happen, without a doubt."
The addition of Westbrook last summer took a large burden off Harden's shoulders, which has proved valuable for much of 2019-20. But the usage timeshare shouldn't continue in the final minutes of a playoff game. Westbrook is a poor shooter with a propensity for turnovers, and he's unlikely to get the benefit of a whistle near the rim as the clock ticks down. Harden, by contrast, should thrive late. He's a three-time scoring champion and perhaps the best isolation player in basketball history. Luguentz Dort can give Harden trouble, but otherwise, no Oklahoma City defender can keep him in check. Each late-game possession should start with the ball in Harden's hands. Anything else is a missed opportunity.
Game 7 on Wednesday marks a potential crossroads for the Rockets. A loss could spell the end of both D'Antoni and Daryl Morey's tenures, and there will be no shortage of criticism for Houston's pair of superstars. Don't expect Paul and the Thunder to wilt regardless of circumstance. It would be a relative shock if this game isn't close in the fourth quarter. When the final minutes arrive, Harden must lead the way. If he doesn't, an ugly offseason could be in store.
Harden and the Rockets will look to avoid elimination on Wednesday. Game 7 is slated to tip-off at 8 p.m. CT.