It’s simple, The Beard, who has finished top-5 in the MVP race in each of the last three seasons, choked in Round 2 against the San Antonio Spurs. James Harden came into the playoffs averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 (!) assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game. It was truly a magical year for the Houston Rockets guard, and he was getting a lot of deserved MVP consideration from fans, fellow players, and the media.
Harden’s dominance continued in Round 1 of the playoffs, where we witnessed him average an astounding 33.2 points while dishing out 7.0 assists per game, en route to a drubbing of Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. And then in Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs, the Rockets kept churning and looked like they were going to run the Spurs right out of the gym. The Beard had a well balanced 20 points on 13 shots, to go along with 14 assists, as he team won 126-99.
James Harden last night: 20 points, 14 assists, 27-point win and this pass. pic.twitter.com/PdqK1SIZa7
— ThePostGame (@ThePostGame) May 2, 2017
We knew the Spurs weren’t going to sit down and bow out quietly so back-to-back San Antonio victories weren’t shocking. But Harden and his team responded well in Game 4 at home, using a big second half to spurn a 125-104 blowout, behind 28 points and 12 assists from their All-Star.
The decisive Game 5, as the series was tied 2-2, was held in San Antonio, but Harden and Co. did not back down in the slightest. In fact, the Rockets held a small lead for much of the game, as No. 13 racked up 33 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds in regulation. However, the game went to overtime and this is where the downfall begins.
The first 240 minutes of the series were favorable to The Beard, but that trend drastically changed from there on out. In overtime, in one of the biggest games of his career, Harden choked. He not only went scoreless when it mattered the most, but he also committed four enormous turnovers and failed to convert on the final play of the game:
A vintage performance by Manu Ginobili ends with a game-sealing block pic.twitter.com/YJvbRAQWRg
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 10, 2017
And we’ve seen some of the greats come up short before: Michael Jordan stumbled to eight turnovers in Game 6 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, Karl Malone fell flat with five turnovers including a costly one in the final seconds of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, Lebron James limped to 25 percent free-throw shooting in Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals, and many others have followed the same path.
But the thing that makes Harden’s performance so disturbing is that he had a chance to redeem himself in Game 6 (and possibly Game 7), and yet he let his team down. All three of the aforementioned superstars that choked in big moments, happened in an elimination game. They struggled, their team lost, and the season was over. But Harden had a shot at taking over Game 6, putting the Rockets on his back, and carrying them to a win-or-go-home Game 7. And he couldn’t even come close.
The Beard’s negative overtime momentum from Game 5 spilled over into Game 6 as he and his Houston teammates looked lost from the jump against the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs. San Antonio was missing two of their starters, Leonard and Tony Parker, were playing on the road against a top-5 team in the league, and still jumped out to a 61-42 halftime lead.
Harden looked as bad as I’ve ever seen him. He didn’t look like the confident playmaker that we have come to know over the last five seasons. It was like an entirely new person out on the court, and his statistics show that. Harden scored only 10 points on 2-11 shooting, while committing six fouls and six turnovers, and totaling a -28 +/-.
Bad night for James Harden. Here some of his negative highlights of Game 6 of Spurs vs. Rockets.
— FEAR THE SPORTS. (@FearTheSports) May 12, 2017
The Beard choked. San Antonio won 114-75 and will face the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals in a matchup of the two best records during the regular season. This isn’t the last time we’ll hear from Harden or this core group of Rockets players that went 55-27 in Mike D’Antoni’s first year at the helm, but it certainly is a disappointing ending to a historic year for Harden and Co.
Photo Credit: Us Weekly.