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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Harden Comes Up Empty in Clutch as Rockets Fall to Spurs in Game Five

The San Antonio Spurs persevered without the injured Kawhi Leonard down the stretch to defeat the Houston Rockets 110-107 in overtime and take a 3-2 series lead. Leonard led the Spurs with 22 points and a game-high 15 rebounds but he sprained his left ankle in the second half. Leonard already was struggling with a right knee injury and he tried to play through the sprained ankle as well but he could not put weight on his left leg, forcing Coach Gregg Popovich to leave him on the bench for most of the fourth quarter and during the entire overtime. Patty Mills scored 20 points as the starting point guard in place of the injured Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge had 18 points and 14 rebounds but the overtime stars were Danny Green and Manu Ginobili. Green finished with 16 points, including seven of the Spurs' nine overtime points. Ginobili had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists in addition to making perhaps the biggest play of the game by blocking James Harden's game-tying three point attempt as time expired.

Harden finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. That looks like a great line, but he also had nine turnovers and shot just 4-15 from three point range. Those numbers help explain why the Rockets outscored the Spurs by three points when Harden was on the bench but were outscored by six points when he was on the court. Harden was awful down the stretch when the game was up for grabs: he committed an offensive foul on Houston's last possession in regulation and then he shot 0-3 from the field with three turnovers in overtime. 

It is fitting that Ginobili made the big play against Harden, because Ginobili is in many ways the anti-Harden. Ginobili made a decision early in his career to sacrifice individual glory for team success, while Harden has spent the past few years running away from and/or running off every one of his star teammates, including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard. Almost four years ago to the day, I wrote an article titled The Difference Between Being the Third Option and Being the First Option and I compared Harden to Ginobili:
Ginobili has won three NBA championships so far and he has earned two All-Star selections, two All-NBA selections and the 2008 Sixth Man Award; combined with his stellar FIBA career, those honors and accomplishments may be enough for Ginobili to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Harden won the Sixth Man Award in 2012 and if he had stayed in Oklahoma City he likely would have earned at least one All-Star nod. Even if he and the Thunder would not have beaten Miami this season or next season, time would have been on their side; the young Thunder would have peaked just as the Heat's core players entered their 30s and started to decline.

Is getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs every year as "The Man" better than being the third option on a perennial championship contender? Ginobili has no reason to regret his answer to that question; five years from now it will be interesting to reevaluate Harden's answer.
Unlike Harden, Ginobili can make game-winning plays at either end of the court. Ginobili's role at 39 years old is obviously vastly diminished from his role during his prime but he never whines or complains; he wants to be part of a winning team and he is not concerned about individual glory.

Houston seized home court advantage by winning game one in San Antonio and caught two huge breaks with Parker's season-ending injury and Leonard's game five injuries but now the Rockets must win at home in game six and on the road in game seven in order to advance. Game five winners in 2-2 series prevail more than 80% of the time, so when the wheels fell off for Harden down the stretch the outcome of the series was likely decided. You cannot feel too badly for Harden, though, because he has exactly what he wanted when he rejected Oklahoma City's contract offer five years ago: big money, big stats and everything revolves around him. Winning a championship is a tangential concern for Harden. LeBron James and Kevin Durant can be rightfully criticized for their free agency decisions but no one can doubt that each player thought at the time that he was making a move that maximized his chance of winning a title, whether or not one believes that each player could have won a title by remaining with his original team. Harden fled from a team with two MVP caliber players so that he could receive all of the shine in Houston and that was most assuredly not a choice that maximized his chance to win a championship.

Game five versus the Spurs was a quintessential Harden performance and a prime example of what I have been writing about him for years: he is a talented player who is not well-suited to being the best player on a championship team. Harden's supporters will tout his points, assists and alleged "efficiency," but the real story is that with the game and the series hanging in the balance he fell apart. The lasting image of this series will either be Ginobili's block or perhaps Harden blaming one of his late-game turnovers on Clint Capela while the Spurs headed downcourt for a fast break basket. That play reminded me of two very different situations involving two all-time greats: (1) Rookie of the Year David Thompson cried after a game in the 1976 ABA Finals when he felt that the officials should have called a foul on one of his missed shots but Julius Erving was incredulous at that reaction, stating that when he missed a shot as a rookie he would just go get the ball and then score; (2) when Michael Jordan, near the end of his career and basically playing on one leg, thought that he had been fouled by Ron Mercer, Jordan raced downcourt, blocked Mercer's layup from behind, pinned it to the glass, caught the ball and barked something at Mercer.

With the game on the line, do you make it happen or do you watch it happen?

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:51 AM



At Wednesday, May 10, 2017 3:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


There a difference between being a legend and being a mvp canidate is the legends come through when it matters most david. James harden is not a legend he a mvp canidate he has consistently not came through in the clutch In houston since he been there he is a two option on a title team and cannot carry a team to a title. Only lebron and Durant or curry can carry teams to a title im not sure bout kawhi and I dont think westbrook could either. I expect spurs to win series in seven houston and harden blew that game

At Wednesday, May 10, 2017 6:31:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...


I couldn't wait to read your insight after watching this entertaining game. You have been right on the money about Harden for years since he left OKC.

It is absolutely bonkers that the mainstream media keeps elevating him to the same level as Curry or Westbrook. He is the most overrated offensive player in history of the NBA.

If Curry, Westbrook, LeBron, or Durant had this kind of performance, he media would be unforgiving in their reactions and "analysis".

At Thursday, May 11, 2017 4:40:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Whilst I agree with your opinion regarding Harden's ceiling as the second best player on a championship team, I've been impressed with the Rockets and Harden in this playoffs. I've definitely changed my opinion on whether Harden deserved that max contract or not. More may not be the savant the media claims, but he has done a good job hasn't he?

If you judge team success by winning a championship then I can't see any different moves that would have given the Rockets a better chance. How many teams over the last few years since Harden's signing could have realistically competed for a championship? The list is probably Cavs/Spurs/GSW/Thunder. The Cavs have LeBron, GSW and Thunder weren't made they were drafted and the Rockets are pushing the Spurs in this series. Which free agent should Morey have given Max instead? Aldridge? The only different strategy Morey could have taken is break down and rebuild but that isn't guaranteed either.

I don't think the Rockets are a championship team, and Morey is no genius, but he has done a great job with this team and if I was a Rockets fan (or the owner) I'd be very happy with his work.

At Thursday, May 11, 2017 10:11:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Harden is the perimeter version of Karl Malone. Both play a referee dependent game. And they both routinely choke in the playoffs cuz the referees let things go more often.

At Thursday, May 11, 2017 10:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Morey spent a lot of money to build a team that has no realistic chance to win a title. He was hired to win a title, so winning 50+ games in the regular season is not a bad thing but it also is not what he was hired to do.

At Thursday, May 11, 2017 10:43:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Stephen A. Smith just said on sportscenter that five NBA Hall of famers texted him saying Harden quit.

At Thursday, May 11, 2017 10:46:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Disgraceful showing by Harden tonight. I agreed with you and expected the Spurs to win this series but gave him some credit and did not actually expect him to just completely wilt under the spotlight like that. This is worse than LeBron against Boston in 2010.

At Thursday, May 11, 2017 11:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


1) I don't pay much attention to "Screamin' A" but I saw that segment and must say that I had the same thought while watching the game. "Pressure busts pipes" is what a friend of mine used to say during pickup or rec league games when the moment seemed too big for someone and that seems to apply to Harden.

2) Harden's numbers are worse than LeBron's but to me what LeBron did in 2010 was worse because he is actually good enough to be the best player on a championship team. I was at the LeBron game and I was just shocked by how he played--and everyone else on press row was shocked as well. No one should be shocked by Harden's performance, because we have seen this before. I predicted before the series what his final series averages would be (I nailed everything except for assists, where he exceeded my prediction) and I have always said that he will have high turnovers and low FG% in key games.

At Friday, May 12, 2017 12:09:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Fun Fact: Spurs hit 5 of 22 threes while beating the Rockets by 39. Nothing should piss off Daryl Morey more. ;-)

At Friday, May 12, 2017 9:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you! I appreciate all of my readers, but particularly the ones like you who have been loyal for years.


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