Rockets' MVP candidate lifts team to first series victory since 2009
POSTED: Apr 29, 2015 1:57 AM ET
James Harden steps back and sinks the big 3-pointer late in the 4th quarter.
HOUSTON — First step.
That's all James Harden would allow it to be.
Never mind the talking heads.
This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around.
That's why the Rockets locker room was a more muted celebration of what they accomplished than quiet certification of what they can be after a 103-94 win eliminated the Dallas Mavericks four games to one on Tuesday night.
"Obviously, this isn't it for us," Harden said. "We have bigger goals."
That's why he wouldn't bite on the opportunities to crow even just a little bit.
He knows the 20th anniversary feting of the 1994 and 1995 back-to-back championships rings just a bit hollow when you haven't done much of anything else in the two ensuing decades.
For the Rockets franchise, it may well have been a night to do double, triple and quadruple backflips over winning just their second playoff series of any kind since 1997 and their first since 2009.
Just don't expect Harden to get upside down in jubilation for getting off the ground floor.
He didn't come for the history. He came to make his own.
That's why the beard wasn't covering up an ear-to-ear grin and those eyes that are constantly shifting, moving, searching were not twinkling with glee.
In the end it was just another typical Harden game — 28 points, eight assists and always the calming effect of a huge sedative on a crowd of more than 18,000 anytime the Mavs tried to make it a little too tight.
Shooting, scoring, driving and pulling up to stab in a 3-pointer. Drawing the defense to him and then dropping a pocket pass onto a teammate on the other side of the lane for a bucket.
As Terrence Jones struggled to find a rhythm of the game, Harden kept in his ear, pushing, urging, inspiring.
Harden got himself out of Oklahoma City to be this player, the one who takes the ball in his hands and the situation and the game and the team onto his shoulders.
It was never just a breakdown in contract negotiations at the end with Thunder general manager Sam Presti. The truth is that the Thunder were always willing to go to the wall financially to keep their Big Three of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden together. But after three seasons and one trip to The Finals, Harden wanted more and nothing the Thunder could do was going to keep him in that yoke.
He wanted games like this one, an atmosphere where the tension and the pressure is palpable. The Rockets had lost their focus and their energy in Game 4 in Dallas and allowed the Mavs to avoid a sweep on Sunday night. The general consensus was that the Rockets still had the series firmly in hand. But then the Bucks shocked everybody by winning again in Chicago with a 3-0 series lead suddenly turned to just 3-2, there was no taking anything for granted.
Harden has been a relentless, driving force from opening night this season in part because he's in the prime of his career and just getting better and better. But he's also driven by the last two playoff series, his first with the Rockets, where he played poorly, couldn't make buckets when they were needed and couldn't get his team out of the first round.
"I don't ever want to feel that way again," he told himself.
That's why this season has unfolded with him smack in the middle of the MVP race with Golden State's Steph Curry and why Harden won't back down from telling you he should win. Call him cocky, but he'll break you down and beat you.
Dwight Howard is taller and larger, but Harden is the big man. This is his team, his show and anybody who watches the Rockets just once knows it. He carries more of the burden of an entire offense than any other player in the 2015 playoffs.
It's why he carried on himself through the injuries to Howard and to Terrence Jones that sidelined them for large chunks of the season. It's why he's just kept moving forward with the losses of Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas just before the start of the playoffs.
"We got a lot of guys banged up," Harden said. "Guys filling out the lineup. Guys not playing well at certain times during the season, even in the post-season. But guys continue to battle through it, continue to fight and that's what makes this more special.
"It says a lot. We have a lot of versatility in the locker room. In order for us to get where we want to go, we've got to play some defense. We really showed in this game that we can play some really good defense and be locked in. Whether we play San Antonio or the Clippers, both are elite offensive teams and we got to be ready to lock down.
"We got a lot of guys in this locker room that are hungry and want to do whatever it takes to win. When you get a group like that, you've got a lot of guys that want to sacrifice."
When you get a lead dog like that, a lot of guys will want to follow.
Harden had one basket in the fourth quarter. But it came just when the Mavs made a last bid and cut it down to a two-possession game, a step-back 3-pointer with 2:38 left to play.
"It's the beginning," he said.
First step. Big step.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.