OAKLAND, Calif. — James Harden, the reigning MVP and back-to-back NBA scoring champion, shifted into a complementary role during arguably the most important minutes of the season for the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets trailed the Golden State Warriors by one point when Harden checked back into Wednesday’s Game 5 with 7:08 remaining. He attempted only one shot from the floor the remainder of the game — a layup that trimmed the deficit to three with 18 seconds remaining — and didn’t even touch the ball on multiple possessions.
Harden finished with a game-high 31 points and eight assists in the 104-99 loss, which put the Rockets a loss away from elimination as the Western Conference semifinal series heads back to Houston for Friday’s Game 6, but had only five points and one assist in the fourth quarter. He had no explanation for his uncharacteristically passive play late in the loss.
“I mean, I don’t know,” said Harden, who was 10-of-16 from the floor for the night, the fewest field goal attempts for him this postseason. “I have to go back and look at the game. Whether it’s other guys were getting shots, open looks, trying to make the right plays at certain points in the game. I’m not sure.”
The Rockets managed to score 18 points in the final 7:08 despite the lack of involvement from Harden, whose lone assist of the fourth quarter came on a feed to Clint Capela for a dunk that pulled Houston within four points with 40.6 seconds remaining. Harden’s lone free throw in the fourth quarter was the result of a technical foul on Draymond Green.
Harden carried the Rockets back from a 14-point halftime deficit with a dominant third quarter. He played every second in the frame, scoring 12 points and dishing out three assists.
Harden sat out for only 67 seconds in the fourth quarter but faded into the background when he was on the floor. He was 2-of-3 from the floor in the quarter, a stark contrast to his average of eight field goal attempts in the fourth quarters of the previous four games in the series.
“I mean, [Harden] does whatever we need to be done,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He kind of let it go a little bit. We scored every time that he was kind of quiet. He reads that.
“I thought he played a monster game. He played [44 minutes, 53 seconds]. Whatever we need from him, he gives us. I thought he was great.”
Chris Paul, the Rockets’ other maximum-salary star, had one of the worst playoff shooting performances of his career. Paul scored 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting, missing all six of his 3-point attempts.
Paul committed three turnovers, the final one coming at a critical juncture when he was called for a charge with 3:39 remaining and the Rockets trailing by three points. Green hit a 3-pointer seconds later, and Houston never again made it a one-possession game.
“Tough loss. We had opportunities,” Paul said. “But we got to be better offensively [and] defensively, especially myself.”
Harden stressed defense as the primary reason the Rockets, who trailed by 20 in the first half, couldn’t complete their comeback bid.
The Warriors scored 32 points on 10-of-20 shooting with no turnovers in the fourth quarter despite the absence of superstar forward Kevin Durant, who exited with a strained right calf late in the third quarter. Golden State guard Stephen Curry scored 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter.
“I think defensively is how you win the series,” Harden said. “It’s plain and simple. You can’t over-nitpick, over-analyze the game. You got to get stops in order to put yourself in position to win. It’s pretty simple.”
Added Paul: “We just got to be better. We got to rebound. Let this one go, too. It’s over and done with. We can’t get it back. We got to go back home and take care of Game 6.”