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Harden, Rockets finally run out of fuel

POSTED: May 28, 2015 9:40 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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Harden records a playoff-record 13 turnovers in defeat.

Here's how the Warriors' defense flustered James Harden in Game 5 of the West finals.

— There will be plenty of other seasons, other playoffs, other chances at this level.

James Harden can hope.

The truth is the stars don't always line up and there are no laws of the basketball universe that say you get to keep coming back until you get it right. That's what makes the Rockets' 104-90 loss that bounced them out of the Western Conference finals harder to swallow than a cat fur omelet.

Warriors drop Rockets to take series.

Stephen Curry scores 26 points to help the Warriors end a 40-year NBA Finals drought with a 104-90 win over the Rockets.

On a night when his team needed him to be fiery spectacular against the buzzsaw that is the Warriors, Harden went up in a ball of flames. He scored 14 points, exactly half of his playoff average coming into the game. He shot 2-for-11 from the field and did not make a bucket after the middle of the second quarter. One of those guys who usually can find the hoop like a fighter jet pilot with a radar lock on his target was lost. His two baskets were a two-foot layup and a dunk.

The only history Harden made was an all-time playoff record 13 turnovers.

"Unacceptable," Harden said.

Difficult and almost incomprehensible to watch. By the end, Harden looked worn down, worn away, worn out by the time he gave the ball one final hard dribble as the horn sounded, then turned to embrace his Team USA running mate, Klay Thompson, at the Warriors' bench as confetti rained.

"I'm all right," Harden said. "I'm 25 years old. I'm all right."

This is his sixth professional season and his third since making the move to Houston because he wanted this leadership role, this burden. It's a tough gig, especially the way the Rockets are constructed, where he has to carry so much of the load. While nobody here is now disputing Stephen Curry's winning of the Kia MVP award, the truth is that Curry has far more help around him than Harden.

The Rockets talk postgame after Game 5.

Kevin McHale, James Harden and Dwight Howard talk about losing the Western Conference finals

He had to be the rudder on the ship in a season when center Dwight Howard missed exactly half of the 82 game schedule due to knee problems, and starting power forward Terrence Jones was sidelined for months with a career-threatening nerve injury to his foot.

Harden pushed, prodded, pulled and dragged the Rockets to 56 wins and a doggedly determined No. 2 seed in the merciless Western Conference.

But all that anyone ever remembers through the long summer is the ending. Harden has that failure to get off a shot in the last seconds of Game 2. He has that 3-for-16 disappearing act when the Rockets were embarrassed in Game 3 at home by 35 points. Now he has this ugliest of all meltdowns in the finale when he could never get his game going and continually coughed up the basketball.

"It's tough," Harden said when asked what he'll take away. "Just valuing possessions in the postseason. The first two games you take away some of those possessions we gave away and it's a different series. So, just valuing the ball a lot more, especially if I'm going to be doing a lot of ball handling. I mean, not give away easy baskets. Tonight was another case for myself. Thirteen turnovers is unacceptable."

I mean, look, James didn't play well, but as I've said all year long, we don't win the division, don't win 56 games, we don't have home court, we don't beat the Clippers in Game 7 if it wasn't for James.

– Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale

There are times when the guy who usually looks like the coolest one in any room as soon as he walks through the door, seems to get too caught up in the moment, maybe lets the emotions get the better of him and tries to do too much behind that beard. You can watch him practically run himself in the ground trying to beat a defender and lose the handle.

"James had 13 turnovers, a lot of them off the dribble," said Rockets coach Kevin McHale.

Rather than take control of the situation by taking the aggression and the game to the opponent, Harden can take himself right out as the deciding factor by getting his engine revving far too fast.

The greatest of the great ones always talk about the fury and the flash of the tensest, high-stakes games seeming to slow for them and that happens for Harden during the regular season. It happens when he poured in 45 points in Game 4 when the Rockets were down 0-3 and beginning the battle for their survival. Then he hit the floor for Game 5 didn't know which switch to flip or when, confused between getting his teammates involved or getting in gear himself.

"I think he turned down a few shots that he probably could have had in different areas," McHale said. "I mean, look, James didn't play well, but as I've said all year long, we don't win the division, don't win 56 games, we don't have home court, we don't beat the Clippers in Game 7 if it wasn't for James.

"He had a tough go tonight. There's nothing else you can really say about it, man. Sometimes you go out there and you're trying your best and things just don't work out."

It is Harden, younger and with much more of his career in front of him, who has to be the leader of this team. Not just by always scoring the most points, but being in control and command. By learning and growing.

After 11 NBA seasons and with his 30th birthday approaching, Howard pretty much is what he is. Neither his game or his loopy personality are going to change. He'll play hard. He'll occasionally play dumb and did again on Wednesday night, picking up a technical foul that could have had him suspended for a Game 6 if the Rockets had won.

But, since struggling in his only trip to The Finals in 2012 against Miami as the third wheel with the Thunder, the playoffs have been bumpy for Harden. He didn't shoot the ball or play particularly well the two previous seasons in first round losses to Oklahoma City and Portland. This was progress, but another empty finish.

"Basically, we'll be all right," he said. "Just another step for us. Western Conference finals. We've got to come back a lot better, a lot stronger physically and mentally."

This is the job, the spot, the burden Harden wanted. Leadership has its privileges ... and its obligations.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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