Rockets Look Forward to Rested James Harden in NBA Playoffs

Michael Shapiro

James Harden has established himself as a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in eight seasons with the Rockets, but Houston's superstar enters the 2020 playoffs with one thing missing from his career resume: the Larry O'Brien Trophy. 

There's no shame in the omission for Harden. He's spent the last five years chasing the greatest dynasty of the 21st century, and the Western Conference remained stacked even before the Warriors took over the league. But Harden can't escape full culpability for Houston's shortcomings. The last three seasons have featured a trio of ugly playoff exits, with Harden struggling to various degrees. 

The criticism of Harden's postseason play hasn't always been fair. He frankly lit up the scoreboard in last year's second-round exit against Golden State, averaging 34.8 points per game–including 35 in Game 6–despite middling efficiency. Houston's home loss to close the season was largely about its inability to contain Steph Curry in the second half. 

Criticism of the exits in 2017 and 2018 are more fair. Harden shot a dreadful 38.6% from the field and 20.3% from three in the last six games of the 2018 Western Conference finals. 2017 featured a 2-11 performance in a Game 6 snoozer against San Antonio. Similar performances in Orlando could have the Rockets home by Labor Day. 

One feasible explanation for Harden's struggles is simple fatigue. He carried a middling Rockets' roster to 55 wins in 2016-17, battling Russell Westbrook for MVP honors. San Antonio pounded Harden through five games, and by the end of the series, Houston's superstar was exhausted. Chris Paul took a portion of the offensive load in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Russell Westbrook has only increased the timeshare this year. After splitting duties with Westbrook and then resting nearly five months, Harden's best play of the season could come in Orlando.

"[Harden] will be ready. And I do think that the biggest thing is rest," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni told the media on Tuesday. "We use him so much and I use him so much. And that could be one of my problems. ...I do think the rest for him, P.J. [Tucker] even [Russell Westbrook] to a certain degree will benefit us. It’ll benefit other teams also, but it’ll definitely benefit our players that we’re going to rely on heavily."

Harden certainly burst out of the gate to kick off 2019-20. The three-time scoring champion averaged 38.6 points per game before Christmas, tearing up defenses as the greatest isolation player of his era. Harden will need to begin the season's restart in similar fashion in order to capture an elusive championship in 2020. 

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