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Houston Rockets

Did James Harden crumble or was it something else?

As fans filed out of the Toyota Center with six minutes still on the clock in game six of the Western Conference semifinals, every Rockets fan and NBA enthusiast alike were left asking themselves, “What happened to James Harden?”

In last night’s game Harden made two field goals, TWO! This is a guy who averaged 29.1 points per games on .440 percent shooting from the floor. Not the mention he added in 11.2 assists per game to go with 8.1 boards. He also attempted nearly 20 shots each game during the regular season.

Thursday night Harden attempted just 11 field goals while shooting .182 from the field. He did have seven assists, but just three rebounds. He tried to attack the rim, but it appeared the Spurs had the perfect game plan for Harden – Let him drive to the rim and try to draw contact. When he does, pull the rug from underneath him and time your block.

Greg Popovich is arguably the greatest coach in the NBA and possibly of all time. Maybe that is the reason why Pop brought Harden’s free throw attempts down from the 14.6 he averaged in the quarterfinals to just 7 in the semifinals. “The Bearded One” needs free throws to succeed. During the regular season, nearly 32% of Harden’s points came from the charity stripe.

Although his field goal percentage remained relatively similar compared to the OKC series, Harden’s free throw percentage dropped from .904 to .833. He also went from averaging a robust 33.2 points per game to 24.5.
So why the disappearance? Is all the blame on Houston for riding their bearded super-star all season, or is all the credit due to Pop and his game plan? Considering the Spurs were playing without two of their best players in Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker and playing on the Rockets’ home floor, most of the blame has to be passed on to Harden and the Rockets.

All season long there was the debate as to who the NBA’s most valuable player was. Despite Russell Westbrook posting absurd numbers that haven’t been seen in decades, Harden still put his name into the hat. After Houston took down Oklahoma City in the Western quarterfinals, “The Bearded One” cemented his place in the MVP race, making it a question as to who was more deserving of the award rather than a forgone conclusion that it was Westbrook’s.

After Harden’s abysmal game six against the Spurs last night, Westbrook should be all but a lock to win the award. Despite shouldering the load for OKC all season long and into the playoffs, Westbrook still played with the passion that has made him the Tasmanian Devil of the league, never taking plays off and doing whatever it takes to get a win up until the final buzzer of game five sounded and the Thunder were left packing their bags. Not to mention he averaged a triple-duble for an entire season.

The same cannot be said of Harden. He and Rocket Head Coach Mike D’Antoni had defeated looks on their faces as early as the third quarter Thursday night.

How can a team be in the playoffs, in a pivotal game six, with arguably the second-best player in the league and give up with time on the clock?

Some may point to the same reason Westbrook crumbled down the stretch – fatigue. After carrying a team for a full season, a player is bound to wear down eventually, right? But Harden had help. He was surrounded by three-point shooting specialist and guys who could create on their own.

Fatigue is an over hyped issue in the modern day NBA with Adam Silver now seeing the need to step in and do something about the resting of superstars during the regular season. Michael Jordan never took days off, but that’s why he has six rings and is the G.O.A.T.

Others may point to the fact he would still have to play Golden State and the Rockets didn’t stand a chance anyway. That doesn’t matter. If you want to put your name among the greatest to ever play the game, you have to compete until the final buzzer of each and every game regardless of the outcome. Being defeated as early as the third quarter is not something Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Jerry West would have done.

What Harden needed to win this series he already had last season in Dwight Howard. Call me crazy, but LaMarcus Aldridge going off for 34 points in game six when he hadn’t scored over 20 since game one against the Grizzlies in the quarterfinals puts a glaring need at the Center/Forward position for Houston. Yes, Nene was out of the game, but even he couldn’t have stopped Aldridge last night. What they really needed was a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year to play some defense.

Harden and Howard didn’t mesh, understandable. Howard is hard to get along with, but if Harden wants to win in the modern day NBA and not just chase MVP titles, he needs a co-star and someone the team can go to when he is struggling.

Should Houston lure over talent in the offseason, the Rockets may have a chance to make the finals. But as long as the Spurs have Leonard and Aldridge and Golden State has the wrecking ball of a team they do, Harden won’t see an NBA finals ever again. OKC was his first and last chance at getting as ring.

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