The stage was set for a potential series-shifting Game 5 at Oracle Arena between the Rockets and the Warriors. By winning Game 4 at home, Houston became the first team in NBA history to win four straight elimination games by double digits all in the same postseason and were ready for the task that awaited them in Game 5.
To that point in the series, it looked like James Harden was ready to spearhead a possible historic comeback. Instead, Harden saw the playoff demons that had plagued him in the past resurface, and after winning 56 games and securing the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, his and the Rockets’ season ended with a thud.
Coming off a 45-point effort in Game 4, Harden had been sensational throughout the series outside of his 3-of-16 performance in Game 3, validating why he was relevant in the MVP conversation and a front-runner in the race to some.
Heading into Wednesday night’s game, Harden had averaged 28.0 points and 7.7 assists throughout the playoffs and was playing the best playoff basketball of his career. But he ran into a wall, a wall known as the Golden State defense that figured him out on this night.
Harden finished the game with 14 points on just 2-of-11 shooting and had as many assists and rebounds combined (13) as he did turnovers. The 13 turnovers set a new NBA playoff record, a record he surely isn’t taking any pride in.
For many, this reminded them again of why there’s some trepidation when taking the Rockets seriously as a championship contenders. For others, Harden was incredible and proved that he has ascended to elite status, and his lousy Game 5 won’t serve as too harsh of an indictment on him.
Back in 2012 when the Thunder emerged as one of the best teams in the NBA, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden gave their city some excitement by reaching the Western Conference Finals. But after going down 0-2 against the Spurs, it seemed as though their youth would take a back seat to the experience of San Antonio. But back came Oklahoma City, winning four straight to punch its ticket to the NBA Finals.
In this series, Harden was the catalyst for their attack and proved to be too much to handle for the Spurs. He averaged 18.5 points off the bench on a blistering 49 percent shooting and 60 percent from downtown. His ability to make shots in crunch time demoralized San Antonio and ultimately catapulted Oklahoma City to a date with the Miami Heat.
With all that talent and momentum on the Thunder’s side, many picked them to win the Finals, but that didn’t come to fruition. After they lost the series in five games, Harden received the brunt of the criticism after he went M.I.A. in that series.
Harden’s scoring dipped down to 12.4 points per game and his shooting percentages dramatically paled in comparison to those in the conference finals. He shot 37 percent from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc against Miami.
When Harden was traded to Houston, the team’s aspirations soared, and they felt they were viable contenders in the West. But prior to this year, they failed to get past the first round and Harden shot under 40 percent in both series.
Prior to Game 5, Ben DuBose from Sheridan Hoops wrote a piece in which he detailed the front office’s feeling about the team. They felt that regardless of the outcome of this series, they were confident going forward because of how dominant Harden had been. It’ll be interesting to see if the impromptu Game 5 woes from their star might affect those sentiments.
Most of the Houston fan base might gravitate toward the Harden blame wagon because of his abominable performance in Game 5, but the fact of the matter is they wouldn’t have even been in that position had it not been for his 45 points the game before. He can be blamed to some degree because it was a collective loss and no one can be absolved, but unfortunately for him, the narrative of his past might play in a factor in this fallout.