In the Houston Rockets’ first playoff game, Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler stood defending James Harden near the top of the key. It was late in the second quarter. Harden dribbled, took a step back to deep three-point territory and put up a shot. It went in, just as it has so many times this year. The step-back three, a shot so hard that few even try it, has become Harden’s signature play. He made 79 of them during the regular season. The next closest team made a collective 45.
Early in the first quarter of game two last Wednesday night, Harden took nearly the same exact shot. He dribbled, stepped back, fired. He missed. It was a sign of things to come. His 11.1 percent shooting percentage for the game tied the worst mark he’s had as a Rocket.
The NBA playoffs is when legacies are made. Playoff basketball is LeBron James returning home and slaying a dragon during his 2016 title run; it’s Kevin Durant’s pull-up three over James in last year’s finals that—to Durant, at least—represented a passing of the torch. When we decide to tell the story of a player, the plot comes from the postseason.
Right now, the book on Harden is that he’s the league’s likely MVP and already one of the most accomplished scorers of all time. He averaged 30 points and eight assists in the regular season, and his 29.8 player efficiency rating (PER) led the NBA. Charles Barkley called him “the league’s most unguardable player” after game one against the Timberwolves. And yet, he still hasn’t risen to the rank of James and Durant because, as the story goes, Harden can’t win in the playoffs.
At Arizona State, Harden was a consensus All-American but failed to ever advance past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. He finished his collegiate career with an NCAA tournament field goal percentage of .167 (3 for 18). The Oklahoma City Thunder drafted him third overall in 2009, but he always came off the bench. He won Sixth Man of the Year in 2012, but that same year—the only time he’s played in the finals—marked his only finals appearance. He played terribly, and he knows it. “Ever since then, I’ve been tryna get back, get back, get back,” he told GQ this month. “Came close, but just didn’t have enough talent. Until now. Different story.”
Harden was traded the offseason following that finals loss. Handed the keys to his own franchise, he couldn’t carry the Rockets past the first round of the playoffs. Then came Dwight Howard, and the pressure to win increased dramatically. Howard and Harden constantly feuded, but made the Western Conference Finals in 2015 only to be dismantled by the Golden State Warriors. In the following months, the situation only worsened as the tension between Howard and Harden rose. Just eleven games into the 2015-2016 season, Kevin McHale was fired. The Rockets crept into the playoffs at 41-41. They only lasted five games before being eliminated.
That’s when Harden’s story started to change. The following offseason, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey let Howard walk, betting big on his bearded guard. “Let’s not put a boat anchor on Secretariat,” he reportedly said in a staff meeting while looking for a new coach. “Let’s double down.”
So Morey hired the offensive guru D’Antoni and immediately, it was clear that the new system was tailor-made for Harden. Texas has never been a basketball state, but in a way, D’Antoni’s Rockets play a style of basketball that fits it perfectly. Is there anything more Texan than embracing an identity and blowing it way out of proportion? They’ve adopted isolation ball (or ISO), where one player handles the ball and has to make a play on his own. It’s what most teams do at the end of games, when they need their star player to make a game-winning shot. Using it regularly was long considered inefficient, but the Rockets do it all the time. From 2004 to 2017, no team averaged more than a point per possession using ISO. This year’s Rockets averaged 1.12. Further, Harden scored 868 isolation points this year. That’s better than any other team in the league.
This season, the Rockets brought in Chris Paul to give Harden another pick-and-roll partner, making Harden’s ISO tendencies even more dangerous. As a result, Harden joined none other than Michael Jordan as the only players to ever average 30 points and eight assists per game while recording a true shooting percentage of greater than 60 percent. He became the first player to ever score 60 points in a triple double and broke the internet when his crossover sent Wesley Johnson tumbling to the ground. Harden stared Johnson down, licked his lips and nailed a three.
Harden’s Rockets were the winningest team in the NBA this season and rank as the seventh-most efficient offense in league history. He’s led them to the franchise win record and three double digit win streaks. As the Rockets will continue their playoff campaign Wednesday in Minneapolis, and it’s no stretch to say that for Harden, these games will define his career, even if the MVP voting is all but locked in.
“I read something the other day [that said] sure James Harden should be the MVP, sure Chris Paul and James have been great, sure they set a franchise record [for wins by] about six games’ worth, but they’ll ultimately be judged by if they win a championship or not,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said earlier this month. “Really? It doesn’t diminish what these guys have done.”
Really? Let’s think about it: Russell Westbrook’s standing in the league has, if anything, decreased after winning the MVP and averaging a triple double last year. Fans and analysts have picked his game to shreds. Steve Nash, playing in D’Antoni’s system in Phoenix, won back-to-back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006, but he never had the same respect as players like Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
In 2012, King James had yet to win a single championship, but secured his third MVP award. His reaction upon hearing he took home the honor again? “I would give all three of them back for an NBA championship.”
So no matter the potential recognition that would come from winning MVP, Harden is still a notch below James and Durant in the conversation of the league’s elite if he can’t perform in the playoffs. Can he change that narrative? So far, the answer has been . . . maybe? Houston is a game away from advancing to the second round of the playoffs. Throughout this first series against the Timberwolves, we’ve seen both sides of Harden: the scoring machine we’ve become familiar with and the other, ice-cold playoff version. In games one and three, Harden looked like an MVP. In game two, he struggled to even hit a shot, only scoring twelve. In game four, there was some of each. Harden went 0-7 in the first quarter, his worst shooting performance in a quarter since 2015. Then, Harden’s 22 third quarter points were the most a Rocket has ever scored in a single quarter. With that version of Harden on the floor, the Rockets recorded the second-highest scoring quarter in playoff history.
Moments like that quarter are why the Rockets are still the favorites to reach the finals. Houston’s biggest threat in the West, the Golden State Warriors, don’t seem as invincible as they have over the past four seasons, losing on Sunday to the tumultuous San Antonio Spurs. Warriors coach Steve Kerr says that Steph Curry won’t play “anytime soon”, but he is expected to be healthy before a potential Warriors-Rockets Western Conference Finals. Even if Curry is back by then, it’s tough to imagine he’ll be at full strength. Then there’s the East, featuring the dysfunctional Cleveland Cavaliers, unproven Toronto Raptors, and even more unproven Philadelphia 76ers. All three teams have been beatable so far. No matter the finals opponent, the Rockets would be prohibitive favorites.
That’s the path for Harden to secure his legacy. Anything less than a championship will start the chatter again, louder this time, that Harden is a scorer and nothing else. A banner, though, would change everything—especially the narrative.