James Harden has turned into a polarizing player. He had a fantastic season, and will almost certainly be in the top 3 in the MVP voting, but many feel that most of his value comes from getting fouled. If he didn’t get to the line, some reasoned, he wouldn’t be an effective player.
But anyone who focuses too much on Harden’s free throws is missing how special he truly is. And, in a crucial playoff game, Harden’s offensive versatility was on full display, as he helped his team dispatch the Mavericks 130-128 to take a 3-0 series lead.
It was clear the Mavericks were doing everything possible to keep Harden off the free line, but he was still lethal and efficient. Without Rajon Rondo and Chandler Parsons, Dallas had no defensive answer for Harden, and he made them pay from all over the floor.
Harden ended the game with 42 points to lead all scorers, despite only attempting seven free throws. He shot 15 of 24 from the field, and was a scorching five of seven from deep.
Dallas allowed Harden to get off clean shots in the lane instead of challenging him because of his ability to draw fouls. But Harden finished well at the rim and hit several open jumpers off of kick outs.
He hit the biggest shots of the game, rejecting a screen from Howard and racing to the lane for a three-point play. His free throw gave Houston a 127-123 lead with under a minute to go. Then, after a foolish foul on a Dirk Nowitzki three-point attempt, Harden hit a step-back jumper to push the lead back up to three.
Dallas still had a great shot to tie or take the lead. After Monta Ellis hit a tough shot in the lane, Corey Brewer split a pair of free throws. Ellis missed a jumper badly, though, as time expired and Houston escaped with the victory.
Ellis and Nowitzki both kept it close, rebounding from poor performances in Game 2. They combined for 68 points, as Nowitzki had his jumper going and got to the line 11 times and Ellis got out several times in transition.
And the Mavericks as a team got out in transition often in the first half. Dallas outscored Houston 23-4 on first-half fastbreak points, which helped the team to a 72-65 halftime lead.
But the short-handed Mavericks couldn’t overcome the brilliance of Harden. The free throw conversation has sometimes overshadowed his brilliance in other areas, but he proved once again how talented he is. He poured in 16 of the Rockets’ 36 points in the third quarter, and fueled the Houston comeback.
Now, Houston has a chance to put away Dallas in four games, which is something the Rockets shouldn’t take lightly. No matter who wins between the Clippers and Spurs, the Rockets are in for a tough series. But Houston could have a huge rest advantage with the Clippers and Spurs looking like they are heading for a long series. Any advantage over one of those two teams will help. Dallas is short-handed and still dealing with the fallout of the Rondo situation, and Houston needs to bury them before this turns into a series.
Dallas gave a spirited effort, but just doesn’t have the manpower to compete with Houston right now. And the Mavericks lack the defenders to keep up with one of the most talented scorers in the league. That allowed Harden to turn in another sensational effort Friday, and no one can give the referees credit for this one.