Posted Jun 20 2012 11:51AM
MIAMI -- If this keeps up, James Harden might get downgraded to NBA Eighth Man of the Year.
When a backcourt player appearing in his first Finals starts sharing sentences with fellows such as Nick Anderson and John Starks, things are not exactly going his -- or his team's -- way. Anderson was the Orlando Magic's wing player whose fine career almost seems defined by four consecutive free throws he missed near the end of a Game 1 heartbreaker against Houston in 1995. Starks was the New York Knicks guard whose 2-for-18 in a Game 7 Finals loss to Houston in 1994 remains the standard for panicked scattershooting.
That's where Harden is right now, having logged three disappointing-to-miserable games out of four so far in the 2012 Finals against the Miami Heat. Harden, so important to Oklahoma City's offensive attack as an option to make life easier for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, has done anything but that here.
He was rightly honored as the league's most valuable reserve during the regular season, when he averaged 16.8 points. Harden was so effective, in fact, and so steady that many observers lobbied for a bigger, maybe even starting role for the versatile third-year guard from Arizona State.
Now less Harden might seem the better option because that's what Harden is giving OKC anyway. After making himself even more valuable by averaging 17.6 points against dynamite opponents through the playoffs' first three rounds -- 18.3 vs. Dallas, 16.0 vs. the Lakers, 18.5 vs. San Antonio -- Harden is down at 10.8 against the Heat.
He still is contributing in other ways (5.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists). He has spent much of the series locked into a grueling defensive assignment against LeBron James, which would sap almost anyone's offense.
But the harsh truth remains: What the Thunder needs most from Harden -- if not volume scoring, then at least timely, floor-spacing production -- it isn't getting.
He is shooting 35.1 percent (13 of 37) and 28.6 percent on 3-pointers (4 of 14). And after being held to single-digit scoring just four times in 62 regular-season appearances, he has been stuck there three times in four Finals games. It happened in the most challenging games, too: The opener (five points in his first Finals action) and OKC's two road games (nine points in Game 3, eight in Game 4).
The Thunder lost two of Harden's three single-digit scoring games and three of four overall. He has shot 4 for 20 on the Heat's court so far and, considering the way Game 4 unraveled for him -- miss by mistake by mishap -- one could hardly blame Harden if he just crawled inside his vast bushy beard and hid.
He didn't late Tuesday, dressing just inches from a crush of media types in the visitors' locker room, then turning to face the questions. He offered about as many answers as he did excuses, none of which is going to do Oklahoma City a bit of good unless Harden can break through in his own way the way Westbrook (43 points) broke through in Game 4.
"Of course, any man would be frustrated when his shot's not falling," Harden said, as softly as he played. "But you've got to stick with it. It's basketball. You're going to miss shots every single game. You've got to go back to work."
It was the downhill nature of Harden's performance that was most troubling, the sense that each time he shot -- eventually, each time he tried to do almost anything -- the game's earlier failures were tagging along with him. He appeared to get timid, tentative at least, with a layup that Dwyane Wade successfully challenged and with his passes.
By the end, few OKC fans could have felt good to see Harden matched up in a jump ball against Heat forward Udonis Haslem, 16 seconds left, the Thunder within 101-98. It had a Murphy's Law feel at that moment and, sure enough, that's how it went: Harden flailing at the ball, looking for Durant but sending it to Shane Battier, on to Mario Chalmers. Westbrook fouled the Miami point guard and two free throws later, that was that.
Harden came into The Finals as one of the series' six so-called stars, as important as OKC's third option as Chris Bosh is after James and Wade. But even with his 21 points in Game 2, he has been outscored overall by Battier (47 to 43) and nearly so by Chalmers (42), members of Miami's supporting cast. That no one else has stepped forward for the Thunder doesn't give Harden cover; it only makes his underperformance more glaring.
Inside and outside their team's tight circle, the Thunder and their fans know that, without Harden this season, they all would be watching The Finals. But that doesn't lessen the impact of his struggles.
No one within the team seems to be blaming him, but that doesn't mean they're not missing him. Asked about the difficulty of finding a third scorer -- Harden or anyone -- Durant said: "We got confidence in everybody to make shots, and we're going to keep passing them the ball ... We've just got to keep playing, keep passing the ball and hopefully make some shots."
Coach Scott Brooks stayed patient and loyal, too. "James has put us in a position to be where we are," Brooks said. "He had a tough shooting night, but he competed, he battled, he fought, he defended, he was guarding one of the best players in the game. I don't judge a guy's game on shots, on makes and misses."
Still, this is happening for a reason. The Heat have crowded the normally steady player and sent traps at him, making life difficult almost as soon as he crosses midcourt.
"All we're trying to do is make sure he sees multiple bodies when he drives," Wade said. "He's one of the best penetrators, getting to many small gaps, getting to the lane, getting to the hole, getting to the foul line. Our job is, when he's coming up, knowing the sets they like to run, knowing what he likes to do, try to take it away and make it as tough as possible for him.
"He's a player who can catch fire. I'm not saying we're doing an amazing job. We're doing enough just to try to keep his rhythm off a little bit."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra almost sounded sympathetic to Harden's struggles when asked about the ways in which his club has made the guy look bad. "I don't really want to hear that," Spoelstra said. "He's an explosive player. We have a great deal of respect. What James Harden deserves is the respect of our full attention, the kitchen sink of our defense, everybody trying to disrupt and then hopefully you get him to miss. But you know what, this is a make-or-miss league. He's missed some open looks that he normally makes, and we just have to continue to try to grind and apply pressure defensively."
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