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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Tale of Two Game Sevens: The Difference Between Being a Superstar and Being an All-Star

NBA fans received a special treat this Memorial Day Weekend: two game sevens in the Conference Finals, something that has not happened since 1979. Home teams win game sevens 80% of the time but this time around the road team prevailed both times: Cleveland beat Boston 87-79 to win the Eastern Conference for the fourth straight time and Golden State defeated Houston 101-92 to win the Western Conference for the fourth straight time. This will be the first time in NBA history that the same two teams have met in the NBA Finals four years in a row.

A player's career should not be defined by one game, one series or even one season but it is fair to say that over a period of time a superstar will display the ability to consistently elevate his play in crucial moments in order to lift his team to victory. This trait is not necessarily defined by statistics but rather by impact, which may be hard to quantify at times but is recognizable to those who watch the sport with an informed eye. LeBron James struggled to have that kind of impact during some of his early playoff runs, culminating in disappointing performances versus Boston (2010 Eastern Conference semifinals) and Dallas (2011 Finals). While those failures will always be on James' resume, James has without question learned from those setbacks: he added a post up game, a midrange jump shot and even a three point shot to his offensive arsenal--and, more importantly, he finally accepted that as his team's best player he must carry the scoring burden during key moments against top playoff teams. As a result, James has led his teams to eight straight NBA Finals (Miami, 2011-14; Cleveland 2015-18) and won three championships (2012-13, 16). James has also authored some signature performances in elimination games, including several pressure-packed game sevens.

James' performance on Sunday versus Boston ranks among his very best and most significant, as he posted 35 points on 12-24 field goal shooting while also leading both teams in rebounds (15) and assists (nine) in a full 48 minutes of action. James' teammates did their part by playing excellent defense collectively while also making just enough shots to keep the defense honest. There is a lot of talk about how James is doing so much with little help but if you look back at pro basketball history most championship teams are led by a player who accepts the burden of scoring a ton of points and/or drawing so much defensive attention that his less talented teammates have wide open shots; that is not meant to take anything away from James but rather to emphasize how much he is making it clear that his name belongs on the short list of candidates for greatest basketball player of all-time. During the second half of James' career, he is showing that he understands aspects of basketball greatness demonstrated by Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, who each led their respective teams to at least five NBA titles.

I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to rank the players within my Pantheon but I will say that James' level of play during the 2018 playoffs is most impressive. I wish that James had the Jordan/Bryant mentality about every single game--including regular season games in January and February--but during the playoffs James is accepting the challenge to be great and to impose his will on the game. He is not standing passively beyond the three point line but rather he is attacking the hoop, while also selectively unleashing the midrange and long range shots that he gradually added to his repertoire over the past few years.

James was fantastic during Sunday's game seven at Boston but his performance was only a little above "average" compared to his numbers during the series (33.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 8.4 apg) and during the entire 2018 playoffs (34.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 8.8 apg). When he is engaged, James is clearly still the best/most outstanding player in the NBA. Whether or not he is the "most valuable" depends on how you define "value," as his Cavaliers only posted the fourth best record in the East while often looking even worse than that ranking.

The other game seven featured two former regular season MVPs--Kevin Durant (2014) and Stephen Curry (2015-16)--plus the presumptive 2018 regular season MVP James Harden. Durant and 2017 regular season MVP Russell Westbrook teamed up to lead Oklahoma City to a 3-1 lead over Curry's Golden State Warriors during the 2016 playoffs but after Golden State won that series Durant decided that since he did not beat the Warriors he might as well join them. Durant played marvelously well while winning the 2017 Finals MVP as the Warriors captured their second title in three years, though it is a little hard to assess Durant's "value" since the Warriors had already posted 73 regular season wins (in 2016) and won a title (in 2015) without him.

Another interesting subplot of the Golden State-Houston series is that before Harden forced his way to the Rockets he had been Oklahoma City's third option behind Durant and Westbrook; that seemed to be an ideal role for Harden but Harden wanted to prove that he could be the man. Unfortunately for Harden, since departing Oklahoma City he has assembled a playoff resume that makes it abundantly clear that when the chips are down he is not James, Durant or Curry--and Monday's game seven is just the most recent example confirming this.

During Golden State's game seven win over Houston, Durant led Golden State with 34 points on 11-21 field goal shooting, including 5-11 from three point range. He also had five rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots and just two turnovers. Curry added 27 points on 10-22 field goal shooting, including 7-15 from three point range. Curry  contributed 10 assists, nine rebounds and five steals.

Yet, despite both of those players playing very well, Houston took a 54-43 halftime lead and was 24 minutes away from advancing to the NBA Finals. That type of situation is where a superstar takes over and imposes his will on the game. Instead, Harden posted a -13 plus/minus number during game seven, tied with Clint Capela for second worst on the team behind only Trevor Ariza (-15), who shot 0-12 from the field in 42 scoreless minutes. Harden finished with 32 points on 12-29 field goal shooting, including a couple meaningless buckets in the last minute that barely boosted his field goal percentage for the game above .400. He shot an abysmal 2-13 from three point range, "leading" a record-setting barrage of missed three pointers: the Rockets now own the NBA single game playoff records for most three pointers missed (37) and most consecutive three pointers missed (27). The Rockets started out 6-14 from three point range as they built a 15 point first half lead and then they made just one of their next 30 three point attempts.

When comparing Harden to MVP caliber players, it is worth looking at Harden's entire series, not just game seven. Harden missed 22 straight three pointers over a three game stretch, including an NBA playoff single game record 0-11 performance in Houston's 98-94 game five win. Harden scored 19 points on 5-21 field goal shooting in game five but the Rockets prevailed thanks to Chris Paul's clutch second half scoring. Paul injured his hamstring in the final moments of game five but the Rockets still had a golden opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals in game six; the Rockets led 61-51 at halftime but collapsed in the second half, scoring just 25 points as Golden State won 115-86.

Harden shot 5-9 from three point range in Houston's game one win, then made just eight of his next 44 three point attempts. Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni was unconcerned: "Boy, he's due, right? Next game he might make 10 straight, right? The thermostat will go off." The thermostat did not exactly go off: Harden shot 4-12 from three point range in game six as Golden State won 115-86 and he followed that up by shooting 2-13 from three point range in game seven. Harden shot 19-78 (.244) from three point range overall during the series and 52-174 (.299) from three point range during the 2018 NBA playoffs. That is just not good enough for superstar status, particularly for a player who is touted as the best one on one player ever primarily because of his supposedly unstoppable stepback three pointer; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was unstoppable, as was Michael Jordan's turnaround shot in the midpost, but Harden's shot is nowhere near that category.

When Harden's three pointers are not falling, his backup plan is to flop/fall down and pray that the officials bail him out with foul calls. Just to be clear, Harden is a strong and talented player who has a knack for drawing fouls; it is also true that he is a flopper who tries to fool the officials, which is a tactic that should not be necessary for a player who supposedly has an unstoppable weapon. Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan both had the ability to draw fouls but during crunch time situations they put the ball in the basket as opposed to relying on an official to save them.

Again, this is not about judging Harden based on one game or even based on one series but rather based on a consistent pattern. For instance, Harden had a game six meltdown as the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Rockets during last year's playoffs; while his individual game seven numbers versus Golden State this year are much better than his game six numbers versus the Spurs last year, it should be noted that Harden has now presided over the largest blown halftime lead for a home team in a seventh game. Rather than making excuses for Harden, root causes must be sought and identified. Magic Johnson led his team to victory as a rookie on the road in game six of the 1980 NBA Finals despite not having the services of injured regular season MVP Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Frazier led the Knicks to the 1970 NBA title despite regular season MVP Willis Reed being hobbled by injury. Paul is not Abdul-Jabbar or Reed, so if Harden is as good as he is supposed to be then he should be able to take over for a 24 minute stretch.

"Analytics" is a popular topic in NBA circles but when evaluating Harden and the Rockets I utilize the analytics that I applied to Gilbert Arenas years ago: a player (or a team, for that matter) that relies too much on erratic three point shooting without having a sound backup plan on offense and consistent effort on defense is not going to win a title; as I wrote about Arenas, if he shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next that adds up to a solid .389 three point percentage but his team would likely go 1-1 at best, losing the second game for sure and possibly losing the first game as well unless the team defense was very good. Just like Arenas had no backup plan other than to jack up more and more shots, the current Rockets have no backup plan other than to jack up tons of three pointers. The Rockets are a high variance team, which is why I predicted that they could very well blow out the Warriors by more than 20 points in one game and still lose the series. 

The Rockets pushed their three pointers at all costs concept about as far as possible this season, winning 65 games and advancing to the Western Conference Finals--but I will stick to my guns until proven otherwise: (1) no team is going to win a championship playing this way and (2) no team is going to win a championship by relying on Harden as its best player. All Harden had to do to reach the Finals is have one signature half in either game six or game seven; Paul and his teammates had carried him to the brink of the Finals but Harden twice proved incapable of taking the final step. We have seen this script with Harden in the playoffs for years and it is unlikely to change. Some might argue that if Paul had been healthy then the Rockets would have won. That might be true, just like it might be true that if Golden State's Andre Iguodala (the 2015 NBA Finals MVP) had been healthy then the Warriors may have won the series in less than seven games, but if Paul had been healthy and the Rockets had won it is almost certain that Harden would have had a subsidiary role, as he did during Houston's game five victory.

Some may defend Harden by stating that Durant and Curry can rely on each other while Harden lacked enough help with Paul sidelined due to injury--but the reality is that Harden has been hyped up as the consensus regular season MVP and his team enjoyed home court advantage in game seven based on lapping the field during the regular season. The second halves of both game six and game seven were prime opportunities for Harden to validate his status as the game's best player--but he emphatically failed to do that and, as a result, James, Durant and Curry will battle for the real heavyweight crown, regardless of what hardware Harden will receive for his 2018 regular season exploits.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 AM

10 comments

10 Comments:

At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 10:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad analysis on Harden as usual. 1 AS vs 4 AS, of course the 4 AS team should win and win handily. Harden did great to get the series to a game 7. If this was RW in place of Harden, you'd be defending him non-stop, just like you did after his very poor performance against UTA.

 
At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 11:57:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Nice piece, David. A few post CF thoughts of my own...

* Say what you will about 2010 and 2011, but the current version of Lebron's got no quit in him and I can't remember a scarier must-win game type player. He's likely to get at least a game or two off the Warriors from sheer force of will. If he gets one more 40 point game, he'll tie Jerry West for most in a playoffs (8). I'd be a little surprised if he doesn't get at least two, especially if Iggy's out.

* Did Jeff Green finally get it, or is this just the usual Jeff Green variance?

* Eric Gordon is better than I thought he was. That dude should be starting somewhere. It's amazing how much he's improved defensively since his NO days, and he was the only Rocket besides maybe Tucker who seemed up to the moment last night.

* Harden's a choker, plain and simple. You can pretty much set your clock by it at this point.

* We can quibble over who's "better," but I think it's pretty clear Curry is more important to the Warriors than Durant is. In these last two games, GSW took over when Curry took control (though Durant helped them keep it) and he's just a more fundamental part of their identity. He's also a smarter and more willing passer, which matters against a sharp defense like Houston's.

* As much as I was rooting for GSW, it was heartbreaking to see D'Antoni's old "only playing seven guys" Achilles heel reemerge at the worst possible time. As little as I like Houston's style of play, Mike D coached a helluva season this year, and he's even sneakily become a respectable defensive coach (or at least he's become willing to hire respectable defensive assistants).

* I'll ultimately pick the Warriors in the Finals, but I don't think Cleveland has no shot. GSW keeps taking halves off and that might open the door enough for Lebron + whichever random Cav gets hot that night to steal a couple games. They also don't really have the interior paint presence to discourage Lebron at the rim. And Golden State is never more than one tweaked Curry ankle from looking suddenly mortal.

 
At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

David:

LeBron is making it harder and harder to not be a staple in my top 5. I mentioned before that I feel that LeBron is the Wilt Chamberlain of perimeter players in the sense that in terms of sheer talent, he is clearly the best. The problem is that his passiveness prevented him from taking over more frequently ala Jordan/Kobe. If LeBron even had half of their mental aggression - or heck even if LeBron came into the league with the mindset that he has now - there is no doubt in my mind that he would've been proclaimed the GOAT by the masses seasons ago. LeBron has always been one of my favorite players, other than when he played for the Heat. I am rooting for him in this next series, but he is every bit the underdog that he was in 2007. If the Cavs win this series, this will go down on the very very shortlist of greatest postseason runs of all-time.

Coming into the new millennium, I considered Jordan the GOAT with a gun to my head. Because the role of the center is so different than that of a perimeter player, Russell/Wilt/Kareem have always been legitimate exceptions to that claim (I am personally high on Russell and low on Kareem for GOAT talks). A very strong case can be made that LeBron is the only other perimeter that has separated himself from the pack like Jordan. I dislike those in the media and other fans that feel they must downplay accomplishments by players like Kobe Bryant to put LeBron on a pedestal. All of these guys were great in their own right. I'm personally fine with taking either player for my team - it's that close. I just hope that LeBron gets the respect from those individuals that consider MJ a living god.

 
At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 1:57:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

David:

As for Harden - I also said before that I haven't despised a player like I do Harden for a long time (I take that back because I never was a fan of Kevin Durant either). His "ref baiting" and lackadaisical effort at times sickens me. With that said, I am not holding it against him that he lost to the better team. Did he play horribly several times this series? Heck yes. Did I expect him to suck anyway? Double heck yes. Russell Westbrook is my favorite player though and he, along with Durant, collapsed and lost 3 straight to the 2016 Warriors. I have to be fair.

Is Harden a "superstar"? Well it depends on who you're talking to. For as much as I dislike him, can I say that there are 10 players in the league better than him? Nope. How about 5? I'm not sure that I can do that either. I'm not convinced that Leonard, Davis, or Giannis is clearly better. Neither of those 3 players have proven that they can lead a contending team. I talked before about how Kawhi gets more love because of his supposed likable personality, but he has yet to take over a series offensively other than against a hobbled Memphis Grizzlies team. I watched Davis play against the Blazers and Warriors and the Pelican's backcourt was overall more impactful to me. Giannis obviously isn't there yet. If you want to say that there are only 4 superstars in the league - LeBron, Durant, Westbrook, Curry - defined as players whom could go down as top 30 players all-time and could league a team to a championship then I would agree based on that definition.

The question still remains - how good is Harden? Well he's a top 5-7 player as of today. He's never going to be "that guy", but he's clearly better than obvious #2 guys like Paul George, Klay Thompson, and Chris Paul (even though CP3 outplayed him this series) at this stage of his career. I asked before about where does Harden rank in terms of all-time shooting guards. Would any of these guys be considered superstars today based on that definition: Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, Hal Greer, Dave Bing, Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, Sidney Moncrief, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars, Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili? Nope. I'm not going to be upset with anyone arguing Harden over half of those guys. I didn't include Gervin or Iverson in that list as they are at the bottom of my top 5 shooting guards under the obvious 4 and I'm not ready to consider Harden there yet.

As for the distance between Harden being a superstar vs all-star, this postseason should have confirmed for everyone else that very same distance between LeBron and Durant/Curry. While both are supremely talented, they are massive front runners. As I've always said, Westbrook received all of the blame for when KD did not show up in OKC and all of the glory when either did. Curry gets all of the excuses in the world when he plays poorly, but he's one of the arrogant suckers I've ever seen on the court when his team is up big. Westbrook and Harden get clowned for their defensive faults, but Curry's defensive instincts are arguably worst than both. Most people would find it crazy to put Westbrook in their class, but there is no doubt in my mind that I'd take him over either in a heartbeat.

 
At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 4:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

houston deserves some credit for playing defense, combined with some very poor decisions by the warriors. Maybe those two are related; I'm not quite sure.

 
At Friday, June 01, 2018 2:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Houston was in position to win game six and game seven. All Harden had to do was play at an MVP level for the second half of either game--but, predictably, he could not do it. The Rockets are a 65 win team with home court advantage so I don't want to hear that they did not have enough talent to win the series. If Iguodala had been healthy then the series would not have even lasted for seven games, so Houston has no excuse for not being able to win one game without Paul after taking a 3-2 lead.

Instead of speculating repeatedly about what I supposedly would write, why not just read what I have actually written? I stated that Westbrook had a subpar series by his standards--but Westbrook was also demonstrably the best player during that series.

Then, read what I predicted for this series: I was right about who would win, I was right that Houston would have at least one blowout victory, I was right that Paul would wear down/get injured and I was right that Harden would disappear when it mattered most.

It is not my fault that I accurately state facts and make predictions that do not conform to your stubbornly held beliefs about Harden.

When Harden faces the big boys in the playoffs, everyone can see the truth that I have been stating for years: he is best suited to being the second or third option on a championship team.

 
At Friday, June 01, 2018 2:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree with you that LeBron has evolved and that Harden is a choker.

Gordon is a very good player whose contributions get buried underneath the 24/7 Harden Hype Machine.

Green is a talented player but he is like Derrick Coleman or Billy Owens or any number of other big, versatile, skilled players who can play at a high level but do not consistently do so (not that Green is as good as Coleman but their approach to the game seems similar).

You may be right about Curry versus Durant but I am not sure just yet.

As I stated in my Finals preview, there is a road map for Cleveland to win. Golden State is the clear favorite but a Cleveland victory is not impossible.

 
At Friday, June 01, 2018 2:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I cannot take LeBron over Jordan because Jordan was just a little more complete in terms of skill set and because Jordan more consistently displayed killer instinct in the big moments. LeBron is remarkable, though, and I agree with you that it is not necessary to denigrate other players in order to appreciate LeBron.

 
At Friday, June 01, 2018 2:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

Based on regular season numbers, Harden is a top 10 player. However, he benefits from the system that he is in to a greater extent than most if not all of the other top 10 players and he has proven that he falls apart/disappears in the playoffs, so he is not truly elite in my book.

 
At Friday, June 01, 2018 2:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Houston played better defense this season than in years past. I also think that GSW played into Houston's hands by being careless with the ball and by lapsing into too much isolation play.

 

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