ORLANDO, Fla. — He is often accused of being tired in April and May, but this is September and so James Harden has caught his second breath. Or maybe his third or fourth. Fifth? This “season” is so out of whack and therefore all the old norms don’t apply anymore.
Anyway, to the point: Harden had enough playoff energy to provide a pair of leaps in the air Wednesday in the final seconds of a first-round Game 7 that saved the Rockets’ season.
The first leap: He soared and softly rejected the go-ahead shot attempt by Luguentz Dort, the unassuming rookie Thunder role player who haunted Houston in this game with 30 points.
The second leap: After Dort recovered the ball, he tried to throw it off Harden’s body so it could go out of bounds and give Oklahoma City one last try. But Harden jumped again, spread eagle, and dodged the ball to allow the Rockets to dodge an embarrassing elimination.
So, although these are the playoffs, and the second round is beckoning, no, Harden doesn’t appear to be whipped, neither literally or figuratively.
“We’re excited to advance, excited to be where we’re at,” Harden said.
But a little more than a year ago this time, he was indeed tired — of Chris Paul. And this led to a divorce that could prevent Harden and the Rockets from going much further here at Walt Disney World.
Yes, the record will show that Harden is now moving on to face the Lakers, and Paul is now going home, and if they had worked out their differences and remained teammates, maybe they’d be the favorite to go to The Finals.
That’s because the most impactful player in the Rockets-Thunder series wasn’t Harden, a former Kia MVP who shot 4-for-15 Wednesday; and certainly not Russell Westbrook, also a former MVP who now owns a broken jumper; but Paul, the former teammate Harden no longer had any use for.
Paul is the main reason Harden had to sweat out this series. It was his greatness that stretched this and the Rockets to the suspenseful limit. Two nights after his amazing fourth quarter that forced a do-or-die game, Paul spooked Harden again by delivering a triple-double and at age 35 becoming the oldest ever to do so in a Game 7.
The evidence is in and it’s very compelling: Paul is not poorly conditioned, as was previously believed at the time Houston swapped him for Westbrook last summer, nor is his body breaking down. And after a stirring season that saw his leadership and overall play boost an OKC team that was targeted for rebuilding, Paul’s career didn’t careen off a cliff, either; he remained an elite point guard who should make an All-NBA team in 2019-20. He hooped.
Oh, what they could’ve done together, a pair of desperate future Hall of Famers still in their prime and tricky with the ball, surrounded by complimentary teammates who’d give coach Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball system more than a fighting chance at a championship.
Instead, Harden’s bringing Westbrook — who lacks Paul’s shooting range and court savvy — to a basketball war against LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
This isn’t expected to end well for Harden, still searching for his first Finals appearance, let alone championship, since joining the Rockets and becoming a true superstar. How many more chances will he get? How many more times must the Rockets find him the ideal co-star, now that Dwight Howard and Paul didn’t work out?
On that last point, keep in mind that in addition to trading Paul, the Rockets also traded their future, forking over multiple first-round picks to OKC to sweeten the pot. This makes the Harden-Westbrook era a must-win, or risk the real possibility of Harden going into his mid-30s without enough assets around him to retool for a third time.
Harden and Paul were teammates for two years, a mixture of great expectation and painful fate. They set the franchise record with 65 wins their first season, followed up with 53 and a division title. If not for Paul’s hamstring injury in the 2018 playoffs, maybe they win it all. The following season, they lost again to the Golden State Warriors, no shame there.
But philosophical differences in that second season, especially that playoff loss to the Warriors, ruined a basketball relationship that seemed ideal on paper. Suddenly, a pair of playmakers who made insurance commercials together no longer wanted to break bread. And this was on Harden if only because, clearly, he runs the Rockets. It’s his team, operating in his vision. And Paul no longer fit.
It’s certainly possible that a Harden-Paul team would see a more favorable road to The Finals than in the two seasons they were together. LeBron and Davis are obviously a load, but not more than those Warriors teams.
Now it’s Harden-Westbrook, close buddies off the court yet still largely unproven in the playoff sense on the court. Westbrook remains an explosive, change-of-pace player, yet that’s now his only weapon: to attack the rim. With his 3-point shooting fading fast — he’s down to 20 percent now — defenders aren’t even pretending to press him tight at the arc. Westbrook is left with little choice but to constantly challenge bigger players in the paint. In that sense, he’s an odd fit in an offense that so heavily relies on floor-spreading and 3-point shooting.
“We can win a variety of ways,” Harden said. “We didn’t shoot well in games in this series and still had a chance to win. If we can play with that same mindset defensively, the shots will fall. We’ll finally get Russell back in his rhythm, we should be in good hands.”
True enough. Westbrook is still mending from a quad injury and said: “I’ll take it one game at a time to find my rhythm.”
Would Paul have made those same costly turnovers as Westbrook did late in Game 6 that kept OKC alive for one more game? That would be uncharacteristic for Paul, not so for Westbrook, who can be mistake-prone.
We didn’t give a damn about anybody’s prediction going into any series. In any game, we expected to win.”
“Obviously a lot of people doubted us,” Paul said of his first season with the Thunder, “but we didn’t doubt ourselves. We didn’t give a damn about anybody’s prediction going into any series. In any game, we expected to win. That’s how we played all season long, every game. We fought hard all year.”
After the buzzer sounded Wednesday and the Rockets exhaled, it was telling how Paul and Harden took separate paths once again, one year later. Paul made his way around the court to bro-hug most of his former Rockets teammates and staff, wishing them well in the second round.
“They deserved to win,” Paul said. “They did everything they were supposed to do.”
He never approached Harden, though, and instead kept walking into the locker room and toward an autumn offseason. Meanwhile, with only one day to catch his breath, James Harden is onto the next round, against LeBron James and the steep challenge that entails.
Without the benefit of a former teammate he stopped endorsing, will Harden still be flushed with playoff zest to make yet another energetic leap, this time a far bigger one?
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