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Thursday, September 03, 2020

Rockets Survive Frenetic Final Seconds to Eliminate Thunder

Denver's game seven win over Utah ended with a wild sequence of events, but Houston and Oklahoma City topped that drama, with James Harden improbably making the key defensive play as the Rockets prevailed, 104-102. The Rockets led 103-102 when Chris Paul--who claims he lives for such moments--gave up the ball as the clock ran down, ultimately leaving the Thunder's fate in Luguentz Dort's hands. Harden blocked Dort's three point attempt with 4.8 seconds remaining. Dort retrieved the miss, but he had jumped from out of bounds and thus Houston retained possession. The Thunder used their foul to give and then fouled Robert Covington on the inbounds play with 1.4 seconds remaining. Covington split a pair of free throws. Then, Harden foolishly committed a dead ball foul, enabling the Thunder to potentially score a point with no time running off of the clock. The Thunder selected Danilo Gallinari to shoot the free throw, but Gallinari missed, squandering an opportunity to give the Thunder a chance to hit a two point shot to win. Now, the Thunder needed two points to tie or three points to win. Gallinari's missed free throw enabled the Rockets to overplay the three point line without having to fear losing on a two point shot, and P.J. Tucker stole Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's pass to end the game.

Harden deserves credit for blocking Dort's shot (and avoiding a foul in a league where officials now love to call fouls on three point attempts), but that does not change the fact that for 47 minutes and 56 seconds Luguentz Dort outplayed James Harden in game seven.

Let that sentence marinate for a moment. James Harden--the 2018 regular season MVP and a player who Daryl Morey ranks ahead of Michael Jordan as a scorer--was outplayed by Luguentz Dort. No disrespect to the hardworking Dort, but no MVP in his prime who is often compared to Michael Jordan should be outplayed by a role player at any time, let alone in a game seven. Dort scored a game-high 30 points on 10-21 field goal shooting--including 6-12 from three point range--and his defense played a major role in Harden's awful performance. Harden finished with 17 points on 4-15 field goal shooting, including 1-9 from three point range. Harden's floor game was solid--nine assists, three rebounds, three blocked shots, two steals, and four turnovers--but in the second half of a close game, Harden scored seven points on 2-7 field goal shooting; the player who supposedly can score at any time against any defense scored four points in the fourth quarter. I have said it for years, and I will say it again: Harden is an All-Star caliber player, but his inflated regular season numbers are the product of a gimmicky style that has not consistently worked--and will not consistently work--in the playoffs. The only way Harden ever belongs in the same sentence with Michael Jordan is if that sentence reads, "James Harden does not belong in the same sentence with Michael Jordan as a player, scorer, or leader." 

Harden struggling in the playoffs and then coming up small in elimination games is not a new story. It is a pattern. During last year's playoffs, Harden and the Rockets produced what Charles Barkley termed "one of the worst choke jobs I've ever seen." Harden's bricklaying turnover fests in elimination games are an annual tradition.

Paul is the other guard in this series who receives endless love from the media. Paul had a triple double in game seven--19 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds--but he committed six turnovers, shot 5-11 from the field and did not take command in the final minutes with the game up for grabs. He had the ball in his hands with Houston up two, but instead of creating a good shot for himself or a teammate he just gave up the ball without making a move that threatened the defense--and that is the sequence that culminated in Harden blocking Dort's shot.

During this series, Paul played well in the games his teams won--particularly in game six--but are we just supposed to forget how awful he was in game two (-36 plus/minus rating) and game five (-28 plus/minus rating)? Talking about how you are built for such moments after a game six win that does not end the series sounds really dumb when you disappear down the stretch of a game seven loss. Kawhi Leonard is built for this. That is why his trophy case includes championships and Finals MVPs. Kevin Durant is built for this. LeBron James is built for this to some extent, though he has had some baffling playoff performances for a player with his immense talents. Coming up big in some games, but ultimately losing suggests that you are not, in fact, built for this, if "this" is defined by consistent playoff success/deep playoff runs.

Paul is a future Hall of Famer who is quick and savvy, he is strong for his size, and he can be deadly from midrange--but size matters in the NBA and that is why there is only one player in the 6-0 height range who was a dominant performer for championship teams: Isiah Thomas. If we are going to praise Paul when he does well in the clutch, then we also have to note when he does not do well in the clutch, and we have to look at his body of work, including a long playoff resume that has just one Western Conference Finals appearance and no NBA Finals appearances. Not only did Paul have multiple subpar games during this series, he failed to organize his team down the stretch of a winnable game seven. The so-called "best leader in the NBA" (as Charles Barkley loves to say) who is praised for his basketball IQ ran an offense that generated six points in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the guard who the media loves to denigrate quietly saved the series for the Rockets. Russell Westbrook, who recovered from COVID-19 before missing several games due to a quadriceps injury, made his first appearance in this series in game five. The Rockets were fizzling prior to Westbrook's return, losing two games in a row to turn a 2-0 series lead into a 2-2 tie. Westbrook looked rusty in game five, but he led the team in assists with seven, he grabbed six rebounds, he did not commit a turnover, and he provided an energy boost in a blowout Houston win that put the Rockets up 3-2. Anyone who follows sports and understands the challenges involved in coming back from an injury knows that the second game back can be more difficult than the first one, particularly when there is a quick turnaround. The media seemed to delight in spotlighting each of Westbrook's seven turnovers in game six while ignoring that Harden had five turnovers in that game. Still, there is no doubt that all of those turnovers--by Harden and by Westbrook--were very costly in a four point loss.

In game seven, Westbrook contributed 20 points on 9-20 field goal shooting. He also had nine rebounds, and he only committed two turnovers. His ability to exploit mismatches by driving and by posting up enabled Houston to score easy baskets that offset Harden's bricklaying; that extra dimension Westbrook provides is the difference between Houston winning this game seven, and losing elimination games in previous years when Harden choked and no one else on the team was willing or able to pick up the slack. Westbrook is clearly not 100% physically, and he did not shoot well in the fourth quarter but without his efficient production in the first three quarters the Rockets would not have been close enough for Harden's blocked shot to matter.

Eric Gordon also played a huge role, leading the Rockets with 21 points on 6-11 field goal shooting, including 5-9 from three point range.

This was a difficult series for me to handicap, and the only first round series that I got wrong. I could not decide who was more likely to choke between Harden and Paul, so the tiebreaker for me was that I assumed that Westbrook would miss so many games--and be so rusty if he returned--that the Thunder would prevail. Instead, Westbrook returned in game five and the Rockets went 2-1 when he played after going 2-2 in the games that Westbrook missed. Don't hold your breath waiting to hear anyone else mention that statistic, though; after all, Harden blocked a shot in the last five seconds, and that may be enough for the league to figure out a way to put Harden on the All-Defensive Team. Morey may soon declare that Harden is not only a better scorer than Jordan but also a better defensive player with five seconds left in a game seven; after all, Jordan never blocked a shot to seal a game seven win, and the numbers never lie, right?

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:41 AM



At Thursday, September 03, 2020 1:34:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

I appreciate you pointing out Westbrook's key contribution, because you are right, the majority of media out there will not mention this.

I would like to say, I hope this game is a turning point for James Harden. My biggest criticism of him (and I have been a huge detractor), is that he doesn't have the grit of other superstars (it's the same thing with Lebron as you point out, at times throughouth is career). But, I think back to Kobe's game 7 in the NBA finals against the Celtics. Kobe couldn't hit a shot to save his life (or his reputation, or his season), and yet, he hunkered down and did whatever it took to win. He was second amongst all players that played in rebounds, and got to the foul line and hit clutch freethrows to help put the team in a position for Gasol and Metta to have big moments to win.

After last night's game, Harden talked about grit and about doing whatever it took to win. And, to his credit, he did do that. The block was not only clutch, but a great defensive read, and an athletic play. I honestly think this is an underrated quality that Westbrook has brought to the team. Sure, he makes boneheaded, head scratching plays in key situations, but Westbrook brings grit. He brings that fire. And, from the games I've been able to watch of Houston this year, it's rubbed off on Harden.

Last night, the Rockets defensive scheme was to pressure OKC's three elite guards (Shai, Paul, Schroeder) and leave Dort open. Dort stepped up in a huge way and hit shots. But, I think it's a bit unfair to say he outplayed Harden. He was wide, wide, wide open on most of his attempts.

As for Paul (another player I do not like...but begrudgingly respect)...after the game, he put the blame all on himself. Even pointing out his missed chip shot with 40 seconds left and his bad decision to put Dort in that situation with the clock winding down and the season on the line. I think Paul is a punk, I don't like the way he's represented the 95% of the NBA population as President of the Players association, however, he really did a terrific job leading his team this year. And, like true leaders should do, he took full responsibility after the game for his failures and for letting the team down. He...was near tears in frustration at his failure.

The most refreshing thing about the Bubble for me thus far, has been the level of care players are showing. Because there are no outside distractions, players are leaving it all out on the court. Mitchell in his postgame was devastated, but resolute and determined to come back. I LOVE that passion. Paul and Harden both showed that emotion as well.

At Thursday, September 03, 2020 5:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huge MVP level performance this series by Harden without his #2 for 4 games and then struggling overall in the 3 games he played. 30,6,8 on high shooting and keeping his TO's down. 5 big-time games out of 7 while he struggled shooting in just 2, but found other ways to contribute when his shot was off in those 2 games. With how well he played overall, it shows just how weak his cast is against a team that has little reason to make any playoff noise. HOU has some talent, but Westbrook isn't playing well(yes, injured, but still) and rest of the team is just too small. But, their defense was great against OKC, though OKC is just an average offensive team.

Westbrook is showing hustle and grit, but I'm surprised how poor of a finisher he is for a guy so athletic. 3 missed layups in the final 2 minutes last night isn't going to get the job done. For all his explosiveness, it often leads to bad shots and careless TO's that lead to easy transition opportunities for his opps. His defense is top-notch when he wants it to be, but that's not really the case most of the time unfortunately.

Westbrook finally can say he made it past the 1st round without Durant. Can't believe how much help this guy needs just to do that, and barely.

Big-time playing by Paul overall, and at age 34. Not too many PGs at that age in NBA history played at the level he did this series. Definitely a bit overrated during his career, but your peers usually you know best. When I hear them say how good of a leader he is, there has to be some truth to that. That doesn't mean he's a great player necessarily, though obviously he has been and still can play at an AS level. I mean the worst player in the league could still have great leadership qualities. And the best player in the league(James for example for a few years) could win 3 titles and still be a bad leader. To come into OKC this year for Westbrook, be the best player on OKC, and lead a team that shouldn't have made the playoffs to a better season than Westbrook did previous years, that's impressive.

At Thursday, September 03, 2020 5:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You're welcome. Although Westbrook has won an MVP--which some people cite as alleged proof that the media does not disrespect him--he is underrated by just about every commentator who I see/hear. I predicted many years ago that Westbrook would take over Kobe's spot as both the best guard in the NBA and the player most underrated by the media, and that proved to be correct (he may not be the absolute best guard right now, but he was the best guard--and the best player--for a period of time).

You are right about Westbrook's impact on the Rockets. I have seen games where Harden is messing up, and Westbrook will get in his face. Paul may have tried that when he was in Houston, but Harden clearly does not respect Paul; Harden respects Westbrook and will accept criticism from him. It has been documented that Harden viewed Paul as an over the hill player who had no right to criticize him. I am not saying Harden's attitude is justified, but only agreeing with you that Harden is influenced by Westbrook in a positive way.

I agree that Harden has made some progress in terms of grit and in terms of focusing on defense, but let's not get too carried about one first round game versus a lower seeded team. Kobe scored a game-high 23 points and pulled down 15 rebounds versus a Boston Celtics super team to win game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals. Harden blocked a shot by a journeyman who outplayed him for 47 minutes and 55 seconds. While Harden probably would have not made that play a few years ago, I don't want to read too much into it. That sequence said as much about Paul as it did about Harden. Paul should have attacked the defense to either score or draw a double team to create a wide-open shot. As well as Dort played and as well as he shot the ball, with the season on the line that was not the shot OKC wanted or needed in that situation.

Dort guarded Harden one on one for most of the game, fighting through screens and rejecting switches. Dort scored almost twice as many points as Harden. Perhaps your argument is that Dort has a smaller or easier role and should be graded on a curve, so to speak, but since he and Harden faced each other one on one for large stretches of the game I am comfortable saying that Dort outplayed Harden for 47 minutes and 55 seconds. When the best line on an MVP's playoff resume is that he blocked a journeyman's shot--and you have to wade through many lines on that resume consisting of horrible field goal percentages, outlandish turnover numbers, etc.--that is not great. Harden blocking Dort is not exactly LeBron James chasing down Andre Iguodala, or even Jordan and Pippen teaming up to repeatedly stuff Charles Smith, a bigger player who was at point blank range.

Paul should blame himself. Dort shut down Harden so Paul did not have to do that, and all Paul had to do was organize the offense for one final possession. Taking a wider view, Paul ran an offense that fell apart in the final six or seven minutes of a winnable game. He had the ball in his hands and ran the show, so who else could be blamed?

I respect and understand Paul's passion and his emotions. He has been a great point guard, but he has also been overrated for most of his career. I am not blaming him for that, but just stating reality. This goes back over a decade to when Henry Abbott and other fools were touting Paul as the MVP over Kobe Bryant.

I would hope and expect that Paul, Harden, and Mitchell want to win. Why else play those games? They have a right to project whatever other messages they want, but anyone not focused on winning should not have entered the "bubble" in the first place--and anyone who entered the "bubble" has a responsibility to his employer and his teammates to play hard.

At Thursday, September 03, 2020 5:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Narratives are fun. Your Harden narrative is cute. Here is the reality:

During this series, Harden took well over half of his shots from three point range and he shot below his normal percentage on those shots (.313, compared to .355 during the season and .363 for his regular season career; his career playoff shooting percentage is .328, reflecting that he shoots worse on his favorite shot during the postseason than he does during the regular season). Harden was passive down the stretch in several games, and he was missing in action for 47:55 in game seven. The Rockets had lost two in a row before Westbrook came back, and they won two out of three with Westbrook; that continues a season-long pattern of the team performing better when Westbrook played than when Westbrook missed games. Harden's supporting cast is not weak, and the team is undersized by design so that is no excuse. Westbrook did not play up to his normal standard, but without him the Rockets would not have advanced. Westbrook is not typically a poor finisher, but you are correct that in this series he had trouble finishing sometimes.

Westbrook had monster performances in the series that he played without Durant. Also, he was an All-Star/All-NBA player during his playoff runs with Durant, so it is not correct to cut his playoff career in two arbitrarily. Harden's role with OKC was markedly different than his current role, but Westbrook has always been a focal point of his team's attack, and the other team's defense.

I love the narratives about "leaders" (and also "great teammate"). From what I read and hear, Chris Paul and Steve Nash are two of the best leaders and teammates of the past 20 years or so. How many championships did they win? How many times did they even reach the Finals? If you are leading the way but the parade does not reach the destination then what does the grand leadership narrative mean? Nash was a great player and Paul is a great player, but the narratives that the media create on their behalf are over the top. I do agree with your last point that Paul did a great job taking OKC farther this season than anyone expected. That is a sign of leadership, but if you look at Paul's career overall his leadership record is far from spotless.


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