HOUSTON — James Harden headed straight for the tunnel as the final buzzer sounded at the end of Friday’s Game 6, not giving so much as a nod or glance of acknowledgement toward the victors.
Harden will have to wait at least one more year to chase his first championship after the Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs by the Warriors for the fourth time in five seasons.
“This one is going to hurt,” coach Mike D’Antoni said after the Warriors rallied for a 118-113 victory to knock out the Rockets. “This is going to leave a mark.”
The long-running quest to host an NBA championship parade in downtown Houston, as Hakeem Olajuwon and the Clutch City teams did in back-to-back summers a generation ago, is an all-hands-on-deck mission for the Rockets. But after bowing out in the Western Conference semifinals Friday, Harden’s Rockets have taken a pronounced step back from a year ago, when they were one win away from going to the NBA Finals.
“People say, ‘I want to make it to the NBA,’ and then your goals change. ‘I want to be a really good player in this league,’ and then it’s like, ‘All right, I want to be the best player in the league,'” Harden told ESPN recently.
“I want to be one of the best that’s ever touched a basketball. Obviously, I’ve got to get the other accolades and things like that, win a ‘chip and all that good stuff. But why not? What am I playing for? Why not?”
“I think he’s already one of the best players to not have won one,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told ESPN earlier in the playoffs. “Let’s hope we get him off that list very soon. … I think we’re going to rectify that in not too long.”
At this point, though, Harden’s postseason shortcomings are a smudge on his legacy, preventing him from being widely accepted as belonging on one of the premier tiers of all-time greats.
His postseason accomplishments are overshadowed by his playoff failures. Harden has already had eight 40-point playoff games, a total exceeded by only 11 players in NBA history, but his most memorable postseason performances have been miserable exits — a 10-point, six-turnover dud when the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs ended the Rockets’ 2017 run with a rout in Houston; a 2-of-11 shooting, 12-turnover nightmare in a 2015 elimination game against the Warriors; even a subpar showing in the 2012 NBA Finals as the Thunder lost to the Miami Heat.
“I don’t really pay attention,” Harden said. “One of the best parts about being in the situation, I don’t focus on it, I don’t pay attention. People are always going to have something to say. Good and bad. Like I said, until you’ve been in this position, you won’t understand it. No point in me trying to explain it to you.”
HOUSTON STUMBLED TO an 11-14 start this season following a West finals appearance in 2018, which was certainly alarming.
It forced Morey to admit that Carmelo Anthony, the Rockets’ low-risk but big-name offseason addition, was an awful fit. It took all of 10 games for Houston to decide the Melo experiment was a disaster, resulting in an awkward divorce.
It prompted owner Tilman Fertitta to personally recruit associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik out of his brief retirement, giving Mike D’Antoni’s right-hand man a raise to return to the bench and help solve Houston’s horrendous defensive problems.
And digging out of that hole, without the help of injured teammates Chris Paul and Clint Capela for extended stretches, brought out the best in Harden. He responded with the greatest scoring spree of the modern era — 32 consecutive 30-plus-point performances, the longest such stretch by anyone other than Wilt Chamberlain — to drag the Rockets from next-to-last in the West standings to legitimate-contender status.
Players of Harden’s caliber are ultimately judged by playoff results, but this was unquestionably a legendary regular season. Harden, 29, dragged the injury-ravaged Rockets up from near the bottom of the West standings while putting together arguably the best individual offensive season of all time, considering points produced as a scorer and distributor and efficiency.
Harden boosted his scoring average more than any reigning scoring champion since Chamberlain, soaring from 30.4 to 36.1 points per game. Some have attributed the uptick to increased volume, but what made Harden’s season so historically rare was his ability to maintain incredible efficiency while carrying such a heavy workload. He had a true shooting percentage of .616 this season, a bit higher than his career norm and exactly his average for the stat over the past three seasons. It was also the highest ever for a player who averaged at least 35 points in a season.
“He gets better every year,” D’Antoni said. “He had a better year this year than last year. He had a better year last year than the first year. He takes care of his body better. He eats better. He works out more. He’s added a step-back, which he’s had, but now he’s kind of perfected it. He’s added a floater, which he’s had, but now it’s better. His defense has gotten better every year. The guy’s phenomenal.”
Houston player-development coach Irv Roland, who works with Harden daily and travels with him during the summer, saw a noticeable increase in Harden’s drive after the Rockets’ rocky 2015-16 season. Houston was bounced in the first round after a 41-41 finish — the Rockets’ worst season with Harden — and he was left off the All-NBA teams for the only time since joining the Rockets despite ranking second in the league in scoring and sixth in assists.
Roland had no doubts that Harden’s hunger wouldn’t be satisfied by winning the MVP in 2018.
“I know him, and he wants to win a championship,” Roland said. “An individual award is awesome, but it wasn’t like that was the stopping point. It’s almost like beating Golden State. Our goal isn’t to beat Golden State; it’s to win a championship. That’s the final goal for everybody, the big picture.”
BUT THE WARRIORS are the hurdle Harden and Houston can’t clear. The Rockets have tried and failed four times in five years, the first two attempts as long shots, the past two as worthy challengers, making the endings as painful as the Game 2 smack from Draymond Green that left Harden’s eyes bloodshot the rest of this series.
Morey admits he’s acutely aware of the pressure of capitalizing on a window to win a title cracked open primarily by Harden’s prowess.
“It’s nerve-wracking for me, because he’s very likely the best player that I’ll ever work with,” Morey said. “I’m hoping I’ll have a very long career and somebody comes along better, but I mean, it’s unlikely. He’s that good. That’s why when we had the slow start and I felt like I had let him down, it was pretty upsetting.”
But the Rockets righted the ship, roaring to the best post-All-Star break record in the NBA after Houston’s starting lineup got healthy and Morey revamped the bench. The scene was set for Harden and Houston to finally get over the hump — especially after Kevin Durant went down — but the Warriors’ reign continues.
Harden’s career playoff statistics dip across the board from his regular-season numbers, particularly in efficiency, although averaging 28.1 points and 7.0 assists per game in the postseason as the Rockets’ go-to guy can hardly be categorized as shrinking.
It’s a stretch to blame Harden for the Rockets’ inability to break through, especially a year ago, when Paul’s hamstring gave out as the Rockets had the Warriors on the ropes. But the “best ever” to touch a basketball don’t get to fall back on what-ifs.
Of course, one title run would be all it takes to change the narrative.
Take, for example, Dirk Nowitzki, who demolished all the silly talk about the soft Euro stereotype by carrying the Dallas Mavericks to the 2011 title, five years after he fell short in the NBA Finals.
But others on the list whom Morey referenced of the best ringless legends stand as proof of how rare and precious those opportunities often are. Charles Barkley went to only one Finals. Same with Allen Iverson, who got there as a 25-year-old MVP and never made it back. John Stockton and Karl Malone got a couple of cracks as a duo, getting denied both times by Michael Jordan’s Bulls, as did Barkley.
Heck, Paul came to Houston because he thought it gave him the best chance of removing his name from that list. He had never even sniffed the conference finals before last season.
Harden had a Finals shot as the Thunder’s sixth man and struggled, scoring in single digits three times in the series as the Heat won in five games. He’s grinding away in hopes of getting another crack, but the Warriors keep getting in the way.
“It’s been a driving force since I’ve been in the league,” Harden said of winning a championship. “That’s everybody’s goal that plays in the NBA. That’s just what it is.
“At the end of the day, it isn’t going to determine my success and my happiness and all that good stuff. Ultimately, you get into a career, you get into things that you love doing because obviously you love it, but you want to take care of your family, you want to take care of people around you, you want to make people happy and all that good stuff. So it’s not going to determine my ultimate career, my life. But it’s one of those things that you’re working for it. Every day when I get in the gym, that’s what I’m thinking about.”
Once again, Harden will have more offseason time than he wants to think about the goal that keeps getting away.