HOUSTON -- There are nights when the 3-pointers practically fall right out of the sky and find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When every crazy Euro-step drive through the traffic in the lane ends with the ball creeping up over the rim to find a place to cuddle in at the bottom of the net. When every pass is right on target and every rebound falls into your hands and everything seems so easy.
Then there are others when you’ve got to get out a coal miner’s pick ax and dig your way through it.
James Harden struggled with his shot all through the first round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it was his Houston Rockets that moved on with a 105-99 win in Game 5 on Tuesday because he never stops pushing and prodding them.
He finds a way.
Harden came here five seasons ago to find this kind of team, this kind of atmosphere, this kind of bond in the locker room and trust out on the court.
He left here one year ago after another first-round playoff exit and the dissolution of an unfulfilling and unhappy marriage with Dwight Howard searching for answers that eventually turned up on his doorstep.
A new coach in Mike D’Antoni, who practically gave him a jet pack to go with a license to thrill. An upgraded cast of characters that put the deadeye shooters Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and eventually Lou Williams all around him, veteran Nene to lock things down in the middle and to supplement the steadfast holdovers Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley and Clint Capela. He’s even got an owner in Leslie Alexander who was willing to break his normally taciturn character to storm out of his front row and chew on the ear of referee Bill Kennedy in the first half.
Yes, things have changed and Harden couldn’t have looked more different as the Rockets closed out their four games to one victory if he had shaved off his beard.
He’s not sullen, detached or aloof, but engaged, enthused and energized. He’s the one setting the tone, keeping the pace, showing each and every one of them that he’s all in.
"When you play with somebody like James, every time I step out onto the floor I feel like we have an opportunity to win a basketball game.”
The final stats for the series might show that Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook had more triple-doubles and put up gaudier numbers. But it was Harden who four times in five games kept his team moving forward at crunch time in the fourth quarter.
“He finds out a way to win and he’s been doing it all year,” said D’Antoni, “and he’s been leading us. He can always score. He can always fill up the stat sheet. That’s him, Russell. I mean, a lot of guys do that. But he allows us to win. It makes the other players better. You know, that’s kind of the case all along.”
It’s been the case since last summer when Harden took stock of his career and his reputation and decided that if both were at a crossroads, he’d better make the right choice. He was already committed to turning over a new leaf. Then D’Antoni was hired and he ended up turning over the whole damn tree.
The Rockets didn’t shock most of the league in winning 55 games just because Harden was putting up video game numbers. They stayed on course to become a team that has to be respected because he embraced the role of leader at the same time that he pulled his teammates in closer. Gone was the passive-aggressive feud with Howard in its place a man in bloom who was ready and capable to advance in the playoffs.
“It means a lot, especially the way we played,” Harden said. “We didn’t particularly shoot the ball well. But we found other ways to win. So to build in the summer the togetherness and the trust what we built all year long, (it) pays off.”
The Thunder made a concentrated effort to run the mad-bombing Rockets off the 3-point line and especially Harden. It threw off his rhythm, tended to produce slow starts to most games. But he eventually found a path to the basket and even when the drives wouldn’t put the ball into the basket, it sent him to the free throw line where he thrived.
Harden made just 44 of 107 shots (41.1 percent) in the series and connected on 8 of 25 in Game 5. But in the fourth quarter while a worn-out, frazzled Westbrook hit just 2-for-11, Harden closed with 13 of his 34 points and lived at the foul line, hitting 9-for-10.
"When you play with somebody like James, every time I step out onto the floor I feel like we have an opportunity to win a basketball game,” said Williams, who came by trade in February. "That’s how much confidence I have in him. Just being around him the past few months, seeing the way he approaches the game and the way he leads everybody by example and just the way he goes about his business it makes it easy for me to come and give him what he needs from a standpoint and play as hard as I can."
Westbrook will likely win the MVP trophy because he put up historic numbers and singlehandedly carried his team all season long. But Harden is moving on because he has come to understand that a leader doesn’t have to do it all alone.
“Everything isn’t always going to be perfect,” Harden said. “You’ve got guys that step up and help you make big plays, always have your back. Even nights when I’m struggling, I’m not really worried because I know I got a group of guys that trust in themselves and in their leader to go out there and play the right way and good things will happen.”
They’re happening because Harden has been put in the middle of a roster that has been stitched together like a custom-tailored to his skills and also because he has grown into it.
“I’ve been excited all year, quite honestly,” he said. “From the coaching staff to each and every individual player. The excitement is there. The togetherness is there. They showed it in this first round. The second round is gonna be even tougher. I’m ready to go to war with these guys.”
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