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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Harden Disappears as the Spurs Embarrass and Eliminate the Rockets

The James Harden for MVP hype crashed into a serious reality check as the San Antonio Spurs routed the Houston Rockets 114-75 to win the series 4-2 and advance to a Western Conference Finals showdown versus the Golden State Warriors. High turnovers and low field goal percentage have consistently been Harden's trademarks in key postseason games, going all the way back to the 2012 NBA Finals, and this game was no exception: Harden finished with 10 points on 2-11 field goal shooting with six turnovers.

LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs with 34 points and 12 rebounds. Jonathon Simmons contributed 18 points, Patty Mills had 14 points and seven assists and Pau Gasol added 10 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Mills started in place of Tony Parker, who suffered a season-ending injury earlier in this series. Kawhi Leonard missed game six with an ankle injury that also forced him out of the overtime and most of the fourth quarter of San Antonio's game five win. The Spurs were without the services of their two best players this postseason--Leonard and Parker are two former Finals MVPs--and yet Harden still could not conjure up a home win to at least push the series to a seventh game.

We have heard all season about how Houston general manager Daryl Morey, Coach Mike D'Antoni and Harden are all on the same page. We just saw what is written on that page: jack up a bunch of three pointers, play small and defense is optional. That has never been a championship formula in the NBA. If Morey, D'Antoni and Harden are going to share the credit for a good regular season then it must also be recognized that they deserve the "credit" for this game and this series. No one can say that the Rockets did not have enough to win this series, because this is exactly the team that Morey, D'Antoni and Harden wanted. We heard how innovative and smart it is to shoot three pointers and free throws while eschewing post ups and most other two point shots. The Rockets followed that strategy to perfection in game six, making just nine two pointers while firing up 40 three point attempts--and they got blown out.
 
This will be portrayed as a shocking result but I predicted that the Spurs would hold the Rockets to 100-105 ppg and win in five games while Harden averaged 25 ppg and 7 apg but shot between .400 and .420 from the field with between 5-7 turnovers per game. Here are the final numbers: San Antonio won in six games and held the Rockets to 103.5 ppg (the Rockets averaged 115.3 ppg in the regular season) as Harden averaged 24.5 ppg (on .414 field goal shooting) and 9.7 apg with 5.2 turnovers per game.

I added that "the Rockets are a high variance team (they might have a home game during which they sink 15 or 20 three pointers)" and that proved true as well: Houston won game one in San Antonio 126-99 on the strength of 22-50 three point field goal shooting; that result inspired a lot of silly articles about how the Spurs could not beat the Rockets because they played an outdated style featuring players who are too big and/or too old. In contrast, I never wavered and I correctly called that first game "an aberration."

I knew that over the course of a series the Spurs would follow the correct game plan: defend Harden with high hands, avoid fouling him and use their big men to dominate the paint. At the start of the game six telecast, ESPN's Mike Breen quoted San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich's defensive philosophy regarding Harden: "Keep your hands out of the strike zone." In other words, play with high hands and do not foul. Jeff Van Gundy said that Aldridge and Gasol must be more aggressive and punish Houston's smaller defenders. He also suggested that Gasol use an inside pivot to set up his dribble to power to the hoop. After an early first quarter shot when Gasol settled for a turnaround fadeaway over Harden, Van Gundy said that this was "awful offense." The funny thing about watching Harden guard Gasol is this is a matchup of two players who are not suited to be the best player on a championship team--and Morey actively tried to build around both of them, though he only was able to acquire Harden. Gasol won two championships with the Lakers as Kobe Bryant led the way and he might win a title as a complementary player with the Spurs but he never had the right mindset to be the best player on a championship team.

Gasol did not carry the load on this night, either, but he filled his role quite well. Aldridge took Leonard's spot as the offensive focal point. He scored 10 points on 5-7 field goal shooting as the Spurs jumped out to a 25-16 lead and never looked back. The Rockets shot 4-11 from the field with five turnovers during that stretch. The Spurs led 31-24 at the end of the first quarter and Harden had two points on 0-0 field goal shooting with three turnovers. Mark Jackson said, ''This is as bad as I've seen him play." 

Breen commented that there was a "late arriving crowd." The crowd arrived so late that the game was basically over and they could have left by halftime. San Antonio led 50-29 midway through the second quarter before Harden made his first field goal and the halftime score was 61-42. Harden had five points and five turnovers. He attempted the fewest shots of the eight Rockets who played in the first half.

During the halftime show, Jalen Rose bluntly declared "Is James Harden freezing up? I'm not surprised he's a turnstyle on defense but where's the passion? What I am seeing from James Harden and the Houston Rockets is unacceptable. Did we see a C-H-O-K-E?"

Chauncey Billups added that Harden's 1-2 field goal shooting is "inexcusable. If he were 1-10, at least that would mean he is trying. Are you serious? You've got to give me more than that."

Before the second half began, Van Gundy declared that Harden needs "a hype man" to pump him up. Really? An MVP candidate needs someone to pump him up in an elimination game at home? Actually, Harden has "hype men" throughout the media: the folks who have been hyping him as an MVP candidate. What Harden needs--if his goal is to win a championship--is to be the second or third best player on his team, as I have been saying since he rejected Oklahoma City's contract offer.

Van Gundy added that great players have the capacity to bounce back and "I'd be shocked if Harden does not have a great second half." The first half of his statement is true. As for the second half--well, at some point Van Gundy and others may have to concede that Harden is not really as great as they have touted him to be. Harden is an All-Star caliber player but he is miscast as the best player on any team with championship aspirations. Harden missed his first three field goal attempts in the third quarter as the Spurs jumped out to their largest lead of the game (up to that point), 69-43. Harden shot 1-9 from the field in the second half, which may have "shocked" Van Gundy but should not be surprising to anyone who watched Harden lay bricks in key games versus the Heat, Clippers and Warriors in previous postseasons. This is who Harden is and this is why he is not an MVP-caliber player; Harden is an All-Star player who cannot handle the burden of carrying a team to a title. How many times does he have to not just fail but fail abysmally in such situations before media members will figure this out? This is not a one game aberration; this is a predictable result--and, as noted above, I predicted not only the final result of the series but also the numbers that both Harden and the Rockets would post overall.

The Harden narrative dies hard, though. Any time the Rockets scored in the second half--which was not that often--Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson kept saying things like the Rockets are showing signs of coming back or the three point shot can be a powerful weapon. The reality is that Harden and the Rockets never made a serious run, which is unusual for an NBA team and inexcusable in an elimination game.

Again, if this outcome were an aberration or unpredictable then I would agree that an MVP caliber player should not be judged by one game--but this was not an aberration, it was predictable and it is yet more evidence that what I have written about Harden for the past five years is true.

Harden's apologists will say that Harden needs more help but the issue is not getting more help for Harden. His game and temperament are not suited for being the best player on a championship team, so in order to win a title what he needs is not a better supporting cast--he needs to play alongside a better player and to become part of the supporting cast (a leader of the supporting cast, to be sure, but not the team's top star).

Morey can keep tinkering with the roster and the coaching staff and he actually makes some good moves from time to time--but as long as the Rockets are Harden's show, they will lose in the first round most of the time, as they have done in three of Harden's five Houston seasons.

Harden was the Shaqtin' A Fool MVP in 2015-16! That whole thing is a bit silly and hardly a scientific measurement of a player--but has any championship team ever been led by a player who would have even remotely been in consideration for that "honor"? There is a saying that if you mess with the game the game will mess with you and I think of that saying every time I see Harden go through his bricklaying/turnover extravaganza during key postseason moments. Will Harden have an epic game seven someday and lead his team to a playoff series victory? Sure, it could happen--he has the talent to do it--but if I were a betting man I would bet that if Houston makes it to a game seven Harden is going to fumble the ball all over the place and shoot blanks; if Houston advances in that situation, it will be with Harden on the bench and someone else making the plays, just like what happened versus the Clippers in 2015.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:05 PM

16 comments

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16 Comments:

At Thursday, May 11, 2017 11:49:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

Great read and spot-on analysis. It's a shame the mainstream media will somehow eventually declare that Harden needs more help or that he is still a superstar (a la Stephen A Smith).

Harden's body language throughout the whole game showed that he flat out quit on his teammates. The fact that they couldn't capitalize on the absence of the best player in the series - in Kawhi Leonard - just shows Harden's weak mental state.

Looking forward to reading your preview of the Spurs-Warriors matchup.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 10:34:00 AM, Anonymous Yogi said...

LOL. I knew you would be gloating about this performance by Harden, as well you should.
It's amazing to see that even in sports, MSM broadcasters have an agenda that they refuse to change no matter the facts.
The coaching by d'Antoni was miserable too, as usual.I have no idea why he keeps getting hired.
Thanks again for your eyes-wide-open analysis and back-from-the-future predictions :)

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...

Harden is overrated as "the best player on a championship team" - there's no doubt about. Although he's very talented, he's way too dependent on a friendly whistle, so a disciplined team can keep him under control.

However, the problem is that MVP is not defined as "the best player on a championship team". It's actually not defined at all, to be honest, but i think we can all agree that it's a regular season award. It can't be anything else because it's voted on before playoffs begin, so if it was about the championship, then it wouldn't make sense to vote before seeing the playoffs. Especially this year, where the announcement is happening long after the Finals, we can be fairly safe to say that MVP only takes regular season performance into consideration.

That's why Harden could still be the MVP (of the regular season), even if he chokes every single playoffs without fail.

To me, the gripe should be that if the league is going to announce the MVP that late in the year, then let it include playoffs performance as well. Or have an award that does take the playoffs into consideration. (Finals MVP is supposed to theoretically handle that but it puts too much weight on the final series rather than the whole playoffs - otherwise, curry should've won it in 2015)

PS. @Eric, please don't quote Stephen A Smith as a source of any sort of intelligence basketball analysis - just don't.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 1:11:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Interesting that none of Harden's gaggle of defenders have shown up so far in this thread (or the last few).

Not hard to figure out why.

He is, at he risk of plagiarism, who we thought he was.

A flopping, defense-averse, ref-dependent choke artist who can't take care of the ball and puts up misleading numbers as a function of an inflated role in an uptempo system. There were a lot of fine choices for MVP this year, but (to me) Harden certainly wasn't one of them.

'

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 2:16:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick,

I think Harden's playoff performance actually validates most everyone's opinion on this thread, including the "Harden defenders". (Gaggle, nice word :) He put up big numbers, took out an inferior team with an onslaught of offense (and a stronger bench), then put up a choke job in game 5, before his complete disgrace to the game of hoops in game 6. I won't speak for Anonymous, but even he never thought Harden was good enough to win a championship as the main guy, and also said he didn't pick him as an MVP.

To be honest, I didn't want to see Harden succeed because I believe his style of play is a gimmick he exploits at the expense of good basketball. So, I was rooting for the Spurs, despite the fact that I had gained some respect for what Harden was able to achieve this past season (and, because of the Nash/Marion/Amare/Beep Beep/Boris Suns...I love D'Antoni)...But after what Harden did in game 6...or, more appropriately, didn't do...I have lost all respect for him.

Hopefully, this closes the mainstream media's affection for him. Every article I read yesterday, basically signaled this shift. Though, most of it was "surprise" or "disbelief" (The theory about him having a concussion...), whereas, lots of peeps that comment here knew Harden and figured that his non-performance was likely, if not inevitable.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 2:37:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

I wonder if this was a calculated move on his part. I mean, if the Rockets would have won game 5, it would have been a lot easier to win Game 6 (against an injury-depleted Spurs or a hobbled Kawhi) and move onto the Western Conference Finals where he could then claim, he didn't need Howard all along. But, after losing Game 5, and with only 7 healthy bodies, he didn't feel he had a great shot of winning two more games as game 7 would have been in San Antonio. So, when he saw Kawhi was going to sit, he decided to not play hard, so that the lasting memory some 5 years later, is that Kawhi had way more help and a better coach, etc. which would thus boost Harden's claim as MVP.

And, actually, during the game and after the game, there was plenty of "hype" along those lines, that Kawhi is just a system player and that he has a lot of help on the Spurs. That his absence and the Spurs crushing the Rockets indicated that Kawhi wasn't a true MVP candidate. Aldridge even said as much in his postgame interview. "Kawhi's a great player, but we've got guys that are ready to play." After he scored 34 points as the go to option.

I know that's a whole helluva lot of conjecture with claims that have only tangential evidence to support it, but I just, for the life of me, can't figure out why else Harden just didn't even try. Like, not even try...

I've seen people compare this to Kobe's 2006 game. But, in that game, Bryant was trying to follow the game plan that had gotten them to that point. Pound the ball inside, abuse the small Phoenix bigs, and thus slow down the pace to try and limit Phoenix's attack. The rest of the Lakers just sucked (both in that game and in general). It was a less fiery Bryant for sure, more subdued than regular Bryant, but he still had 24 points and shot 50% from the field. The rest of his team shot like 20%.

For the Rockets, and for D'Antoni, the gameplan never changes. It's, give the ball to Harden (Nash) and let him run the show.

I knew who Harden is. I never believed he could even accomplish what he did this past season. I absolutely believe he can't be the best player on a contender. I hate his gimmicky game. I don't like his casual attitude and find his lack of progress (in terms of fleshing out his skillset), a clear indicator of a guy who's primary goal is not winning. And even still...I can't believe he just...didn't even try.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 4:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what's not being considered is whether harden was still reeling from his disappearance in OT and that painful block by Ginobli. Harden historically melts under the white hot playoffs lights. If I remember correctly, he was not a huge factor in the finals with OKC (what a huge mistake it was to break that team up for nothing!), he was on the bench when the rockets staged that massive comeback against the clippers, and then you have the OT, and the last game.

I'm surprised Morey (Mr. Analytics - emphasis on the first 4 letters) didn't see this coming - the numbers clearly screamed it.

And that's where the total lack of coaching/upper management cluelessness comes in for me. D'Antoni and management should have been ready to help Harden mentally get it together. And obviously they flopped harder than Harden does on those fake calls he gets.

Better players find a way to make a difference even when their play sucks. They keep fighting.

D'Antoni is clearly skilled in some areas but he's comically not the complete package as a coach, much like Mike Brown (can't wait to see his feet get stuck in cement against the Cavs. He changes strategy in a game like an aircraft carrier turning around). There's a lot more that's needed besides easy buckets, and there are really a few great coaches who have that.

Game 6 was not only a put or shut up moment for Harden, it was for the Rockets management as well.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 9:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

Thank you!

My Western Conference Finals preview is up.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 9:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

Yes, I do feel a bit of vindication, particularly after Anonymous not only disagreed with me--which is acceptable, even though he was clearly wrong--but accused me of being biased and having an agenda, which are descriptions that in fact could aptly be applied to the people who I am criticizing for their eyes wide shut paeans to Harden's alleged greatness.

I could have written this game recap in the first quarter and just filled in the stats after the game ended. I frankly don't understand why people are shocked; this is not the first (or second or third) time that Harden has had high turnovers and low FG% in an elimination game that his team lost. If Harden had come up big, then I would have been surprised. He may have one or two big games in a series, but those usually happen early.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 10:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kion:

It is true that MVP has not been formally defined but the definition that I have consistently applied is "best overall player in the league, unless there is a one dimensional player who is so dominant that he must be recognized." In other words, usually it will be a guy like Kobe, LeBron or Westbrook, unless Shaq is in his prime and doing work.

Harden is not close to being the best or most dominant player in the NBA. He is an All-Star caliber player but his poor defense and questionable attitude mean that he is not a player I would trust with the keys to my franchise. Similar players (in terms of defense and attitude, not necessarily style of play) include Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Gilbert Arenas and Carmelo Anthony. Give the keys to the car to one of those guys and if everything breaks right you might get one Conference Finals appearance but most likely you will get a whole bunch of first round exits.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 10:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree 100%.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 10:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

1) Harden did not "take out" the Thunder. When he and Westbrook shared the court, OKC consistently outscored the Rockets. Houston's bench "took out" the Thunder's bench (and some of their starters, for that matter).

2) Anonymous has said many things about Harden and few of them made much sense or were supported by any evidence. He also regularly misquoted what I said about Harden. Parenthetically, he is on some kind of odd mission to prove that Kawhi Leonard is not particularly good.

3) I won't speculate about Harden's mindset or motivations, other than to note the obvious and demonstrable fact that winning a championship is not his primary goal (otherwise, he would have re-signed with OKC and he would have not run off McHale and Howard after they played key roles when the Rockets made it to the WCF). I will say that Harden's performance did not surprise me, let alone shock me, and it was not an aberration; we have seen this movie many times before, so unless he has been nursing a concussion (or a grudge or a point shaving habit) for several years I am not really buying all of the speculation/excuses.

Maybe he really just is not as great as almost everyone has been saying. That has been my thesis for five years now and I am going to stick with that thesis until it is disproved.

4) The comparisons to Kobe in the 2006 playoffs are as expected as they are ridiculous; what else are people who have been wrong for years going to do other than go back to something else that they have been wrong about for years? Next week, look for the Henry Abbott article about how Harden needs more rest or some other such nonsense. Abbott had the brilliant idea that no one wants to play with Kobe, which is pretty funny considering that players such as Isaiah Thomas are flocking to Kobe for advice. How many players want to play with Harden? D'Antoni should have benched him but I guess he doesn't want to be fired, which is what happened to McHale after he justifiably benched Harden during Houston's fluky run to the 2015 WCF. Scott Brooks benched Harden too, at times, and Harden complained about it a lot.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2017 10:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I disagree with you about Mike Brown but I agree with everything else that you wrote. In-game adjustments are somewhat overrated and are mainly spoken about by media members who don't understand coaching. Coaching is about preparation; you don't just completely change plans in the middle of the game, though you may have prepared some contingency plans if X, Y or Z happens. The ability to use such contingency plans is also somewhat dependent on the intelligence and flexibility of the players. Brown's Cleveland teams were smart, physical and strong on defense--all signs of good coaching. There was nothing that Brown could do when James decided to quit and then leave town.

 
At Saturday, May 13, 2017 1:36:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Some are claiming that the Rockets' streaky 3 point shooters cost them the series versus the Spurs' steadier shooters. I think this is false, because the Rockets shot more often and more accurately from three, including Game 6 where they shot 13-40 (32.5%) to the Spurs' 5-22 (22.7%).

This series was more about the Spurs' interior defense, once they added Gasol to the starting line-up, as well as their rebounding edge. In the series, the Spurs averaged close to +10, and in Game 6, it was an embarrassing 60 to 37 edge.

In the regular season, the Rockets shot 60.8% on layups, and that consisted 25.1% of their shots. In the playoffs, that accuracy dropped to 51.7%, despite attempting more layups (27.7%).

In Game 6, the Rockets shot poorly from 2FG at 24.3%, which consisted 48% of their attempts, whereas the Spurs hit 62.2% of their 2 point shots.

Bottom line: The Rockets could not defend the paint, and they were too small to defend the mid-range shots, especially with Nene out. Moreover, they couldn't rebound, and they weren't hitting the threes very well, partial credit to the Spurs' defense. The Rockets run the sort of offense that requires them to be perfect and shooting above average, because they can't defend or rebound consistently.

But my biggest take away from the series is that D'Antoni keeps shortening his bench to ridiculous levels. He ran his guys gassed in Game 5 with only 7. They were dead-legged in Game 6.

 
At Sunday, May 14, 2017 12:04:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

D'antoni's Achilles heel has always been his inability to go more than 7 or 8 deep. He's oft-maligned for his defense and he's certainly not great there, but his teams are usually around league average on that end. He runs his guys into the ground, though, and his teams, regardless of depth, aren't prepared to deal with injuries at all.

 
At Monday, May 15, 2017 5:12:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

Coach Pop gives his bench players every chance to get game experience, especially so during regular season. But then he only used short bench of 4 and 5 players during 2 close games against Houston, other 4 games he played them all. No wonder they can play reasonably well as starters when needed and tend to outplay other team reserves more often than not.

 

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