OAKLAND, Calif. -- James Harden has assumed the position in this series, and it is on the ground, hands covering his face, rolling in agony, irritated, moaning and wondering what just dropped him.
This was moments after he was scratched on his left eyelid in Tuesday’s Game 2 by Draymond Green. That injury, though, is somewhat reflective of how this Western Conference semifinal series is going for him and, by extension, his Houston Rockets.
Harden is down and, at least momentarily, out for the count. He can’t generate any traction or destruction against the Golden State Warriors, who have a 2-0 series lead after a 115-109 win. This was the case before and after his vision went fuzzy.
If the league’s leading scorer and most lethal offensive force is coming to this battle with a squirt gun, what chance do the Rockets have of extending this series, let alone winning it?
That is the story of Warriors-Rockets after two games -- not the officiating and the complaining about it, not Stephen Curry’s dislocated middle finger, not Chris Paul’s vaporizing act and not Kevin Durant’s scorching pace and dagger buckets, either.
Harden is broken and despite what his popular commercial claims, there’s no insurance claim that can fix this in a pinch. His role in this series can only be repaired by a somewhat drastic adjustment on his part coupled with the Warriors’ defense suddenly developing amnesia.
In other words: This is a problem for the host team the next two games.
Harden finished with 29 of the fluffiest points you’ll ever see. None of his Game 2 baskets were memorable or made the Warriors sweat. None came in a flurry, the kind Harden delivered with regularity during the regular season.
This has been the going rate for Harden all postseason. His efficiency is a mess. He struggled, compared to his standards, in the first round against the Utah Jazz. He’s shooting 37.7 percent in the postseason and hasn’t mustered a ballistic performance after he dropped 61 points twice in the regular season. After averaging 36.1 points per game in the regular season, he has yet to reach that number in these playoffs.
Even worse, Harden isn’t creating as much for his teammates. The Warriors are mindful of his pick-and-roll and lob passes and are rotating swiftly, keeping a body on Clint Capela and others. Harden had four assists in 34 minutes in Game 2 as the Warriors forced 17 turnovers. Paul had just 18 points and, given Houston’s lack of a third big-time scorer, the Rockets were mainly helpless in Game 2.
The Warriors have basically taken a tip from the Jazz by having a defender shadow Harden’s left hip. Doing so forces him to his weak hand while allowing Golden State to pick its spots to trap him. That defense is all a team can do against Harden given his creativity off the dribble, his ability to draw fouls and shoot from deep.
Andre Iguodala, now a starter, is the first line of defense and has relieved Klay Thompson of Harden duty. Even at his advanced age, Iguodala is athletic, flexible and wise in guarding Harden. Utility help is coming from Green, who’s causing more issues for Harden than Iguodala because of his height and aggressive (though not reckless) defense.
But the bonus is Durant, who in addition to his scoring is coming up big defensively against his friend and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate. Three times in Game 2, Durant had vivid stops against Harden, twice blocking his shot.
“I love how we stayed poised,” Durant said.
All of this, coupled with playing with one healthy eye, made for another miserable night for the reigning Kia MVP.
“Could barely see,” said Harden, who squinted through his postgame news conference. “I just tried to do what I could to help my teammates.”
Certainly, the mere sight of Harden returning to play after the first-quarter injury was commendable.
“But that’s him,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “I didn’t have a doubt he was coming back unless it was something catastrophic. Under the circumstances, I thought he played great. (But) I’m sure he would’ve liked to have played better.”
For a second straight postseason vs. the Warriors, Harden would like to play better. He melted away when the Rockets needed him most in the 2018 conference finals, after Paul suffered a hamstring pull and missed Games 6 and 7. The Rockets led the series 3-2, but Harden didn’t do his team any favors. He was strikingly inefficient those last two games of that series, combining to shoot 22-for-53 and failing to conjure the legendary moment the Rockets needed to oust Golden State.
The word then was Harden was simply whipped from a long season where he logged heavy minutes, all designed to win him his first Kia MVP, which he accomplished. But did the load hamper him in late May? He denies it, but that didn’t stop the speculation.
And what about now? Is fatigue, if that’s the case, settling in early this time? Harden never missed a game this season and was forced to play hero ball in December when Paul once again missed time with injuries. He rescued the Rockets from falling in the West and did the finest one-man performing act West of Milwaukee.
Maybe this isn’t giving the Warriors the applause they richly deserve for their defense this series. Their tactics, whipped up by assistant coach Ron Adams, are forcing Harden to work harder than normal. Certainly at this point in his career, Harden has seen almost every defense known to man. Maybe the Warriors aren’t giving him looks that are foreign to him … maybe they’re just doing it better than anyone else.
“I think Houston has raised our awareness,” Thompson said.
At least that’s the verdict after two games. Much can change in a snap, because this is Harden – perhaps the best player in the NBA over the last four seasons who’s always capable of turning it on. The Rockets will be back home and will have a sense of desperation. Remember, the only time these Warriors lost a series after holding a 2-0 lead was in the 2016 Finals.
“That’s a ballclub that can get going,” Green said. “They can become impossible to stop.”
Plus, you figure Harden will be able to read an eye chart by Saturday’s Game 3. He’d better, because he and the Rockets are on the mat and must find a way to rise. The Warriors are doing a number on Harden, and it’s time he flips roles and puts some numbers on them -- the kind that made his season so special.
At this point, does he have any choice?
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.