James Harden, the point guard of the quickest offense in the league, held the ball watching the clock run down once. Then he did it again. By the time the overtime buzzer sounded, it was the San Antonio Spurs winning, 110-107 — and the Houston Rockets scoring just six points in the extra period.
In those five minutes, Harden went 0-of-3 shooting, with a single assist and three turnovers. And he wasn’t guarded by Kawhi Leonard once, with the Spurs star sitting out with an ankle injury.
We’ve seen too many blowouts so far this postseason (and this series), making this game manna from heaven. In the regular season, four games between these teams were decided by a combined 12 points, and so this nail-biting buzzer-to-buzzer thriller was exactly what we expected the whole time.
Still, the overtime period sapped much of the life out of what was otherwise a fabulous showing of basketball. The Rockets, who played seven players, must have been exhausted, Harden in particular. That’s a reason, but not an excuse, for why he dragged the offense down with him in the final period when just a few buckets would have ended the Leonard-less Spurs, sending Houston home for an elimination game.
Shocking harden got bit twice pic.twitter.com/0JRb6X0ahd
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 10, 2017
It wasn’t always Harden’s fault; in one instance, he kept waiting for a screen that never came, forcing him into a contested three late in the shot clock. On one turnover, it’s possible he was fouled a little bit without a call. But Houston’s two made shots in the overtime period came on three-pointers from Patrick Beverley and Ryan Anderson, generated directly by quick offensive ball movement.
On most of the possessions in the final frame, those two excluded, there basically was none.
When Harden’s potentially tying three was blocked by Manu Ginobili in the final seconds, it was appropriate. Ginobili played his best game all playoffs — 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists — and he swatted away an attempt that was representative of all the other ones Harden had taken that frame. Lefty on lefty crime. A chance for Harden to redeem himself, and the ball didn’t even get a chance to be judged by the rim.
Harden was magnificent for most of the rest of the game. He scored 33 points on 11-of-24 shooting, which puts him at 50 percent when you remove the overtime misses. He recorded 10 rebounds and 10 assists, and his nine total turnovers would have been a lot easier to look at before his three extra ones in OT.
But Harden’s late-game struggles stand out because this is hardly the first time — throughout this entire season, he has struggled in crunch time. In the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with the game within five points, he only shoots 36 percent. Too often, it seems like exactly this happens: the free-flowing Rockets get stuck with isolation ball, featuring Harden holding the ball for 20 seconds at the top of the key.
Eventually, that was going to bite them in the postseason. In Game 5, when the stakes were higher than they’ve been all season, it did.
One non-overtime play is worth noting here, too, and it’s Harden’s offensive charge committed on the game’s penultimate play. This is actually when the Harden malaise began, as he did exactly that — ran the clock down, tried to create something with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock, and made a mistake. In this case, it was a ballsy charge taken by Jonathon Simmons, and it was the right call.
Harden is a fantastic isolation scorer, to be sure, but playing one-on-one will always be easier to defend than five-on-five. Late in the game, with the Rockets rocking a seven-man rotation after Nene’s injury in Game 4, Harden had clearly worn down. It might force Mike D’Antoni’s hand into trying a Sam Dekker or Montrezl Harrell in Game 6, and with Leonard’s status unknown, the Rockets certainly aren’t conceding this series. Still, anything would have been better than what Harden ended up doing.
This isn’t a “Harden in the playoffs” problem — his stats generally line up with his regular season offerings. He infamously had a terrible 2012 NBA Finals, but it came on the heels of a fantastic series in the conference finals against San Antonio during his final season in Oklahoma City. With the Rockets, he has just about been the same ol’ Harden in April and May. But in a close game late, for whatever reason, Harden has struggled. Saying he’s “not clutch, bro” is a weak copout, so don’t take that to the comment sections. A more nuanced criticism of him for his decisions to hold the ball without doing anything with it for long stretches of the shot clock is much more valid.
Harden is a cerebral basketball player who thrilled us all year, and he is reasons 1, 2, and 3 for the Rockets being this good of a team. Houston can still win this series, and Harden could easily make up for how this one ended. With a player that good, you might even expect him to understand what went wrong and do just that.
But the Rockets had Game 5 sitting there for their taking, and they lost it. You can really only blame Harden for that.