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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Rockets-Clippers Series Providing Insight Regarding James Harden's Value

After falling into a 3-1 hole, the favored Houston Rockets are one home win away from eliminating the L.A. Clippers and advancing to the Western Conference Finals. I picked the Clippers to win this series and I will stick with that prediction even though the home team has won the vast majority of game sevens in the NBA.

Even if Houston wins game seven, though, I will state for the record now that I will be very surprised if James Harden is the primary factor. If Houston wins it will be because Dwight Howard dominates and Houston's deep supporting cast steps up.

I have been justifiably critical of Houston General Manager Daryl Morey in recent seasons because the Rockets--despite the supposedly huge advantage of utilizing "advanced basketball statistics"--have as many playoff series victories since 2010 as the moribund New York Knicks (one). However, Morey has done a good job of putting together a nice roster to surround Dwight Howard, even if many people are still convinced that James Harden is Houston's best player.

Yes, Harden is leading the Rockets in scoring versus the Clippers (24.5 ppg) but he is shooting just .408 from the field and he has committed a series-high 28 turnovers. The Rockets have been outscored by 16 points when he is on the court. During Houston's do or die game six road win, the Rockets fell behind by 19 points with Harden in the game. Then, Coach Kevin McHale benched Harden for the fourth quarter and the Rockets made a highly improbable comeback to post a 119-107 victory. Harden scored 23 points on 5-20 field goal shooting and had a plus/minus number of -21, while every other Houston starter had a plus/minus number of +11 or better.

Plus/minus is a noisy statistic of limited utility in small sample sizes but in this case it confirms what the eye test proclaims: Harden accumulates individual numbers but he is not well-suited to being the best player/first option on a championship-contending team.

The best player in the series so far has been Blake Griffin. He is averaging 26.8 ppg on .553 field goal shooting while also contributing 12.5 rpg and 4.7 apg. Griffin disappeared in the fourth quarter of game six and the Clippers need for him to be strong for all four quarters in order to prevail in Houston today.

Chris Paul is supposedly the Clippers' best player but the Clippers stole home court advantage with him out of the lineup and very nearly took a 2-0 lead with him on the shelf. As always, his box score numbers during this series look good (20.0 ppg, 10.0 apg) but where was he when all the Clippers had to do was preserve a huge lead at home in order to punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals? The diminutive Paul tends to wear down over the course of long playoff series and Clippers' fans have to hope that the fourth quarter of game six is not a preview of all four quarters of game seven.

It was pretty funny to see Harden on the bench and Paul largely silent while the outcome of the series hung in the balance during the final stanza of game six. 

Media members will keep talking about Harden and Paul but the series will be decided by Griffin and Howard (who is averaging 17.8 ppg on .574 field goal shooting plus 13.7 rpg and 2.5 bpg). Harden might shoot the Rockets out of contention but if he is the cause of Houston winning--or even on the court during a decisive Houston run--that will be unexpected given the way this series has gone so far.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM


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