The Houston Rockets' grand experiment to put James Harden and Russell Westbrook in a jar and shake them up real good to see what happens is 48 minutes from ending in abject disaster. Any remaining title window the franchise has will need to be propped open by a Game 7 victory over pesky Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The franchise finds itself in this unenviable position after a nightmarish display from Westbrook, who on Monday night played his best playoff game for OKC in years, managing only 17 points, four rebounds, and three assists while committing seven turnovers.
The final two were backbreakers and came in a three-possession stretch in the final 90 seconds. He also threw in an airball for good measure. It was abjectly terrible. Results aside, the process was deeply flawed. It has to be flawed when Harden, supposed MVP and all-time great, effectively disappears.
There's immense folly to be had splicing and dicing a few clips together to formulate a narrative. Thus, it's something I rarely engage in. But dammit, this may be a time where it's warranted. Judge for yourself if Harden looks like he has intense interest in putting his stamp on the game.
To be fair, Harden plays like this often. He is comfortable hanging out by the logo waiting for his turn. It's just that things look awful when that turn never comes and he fails to assert himself. And Mike D'Antoni is the one who draws up the framework for action. So if things were actually supposed to run through Westbrook there, part of the blame has to be on coaching.
All necessary framing caveats aside, it's simply impossible to offer a strong defense of Harden. I can say this as someone who appreciates what Houston has done and understands that they're a thinking man's basketball team. The math seems to check out and Daryl Morey appears as the smartest guy in the room. Until, of course, the human element rears its head.
Whether that be 27 straight missed threes or a reticent superstar deferring to an exploding star rapidly becoming a black hole, the Rockets continue derail their own scientific process with human error. Even the most analytical, forward-thinking mind has to concede that legs and brains and heart all get tired.
We shouldn't overreact or blame Harden too much for his disappearing act when his failure was only the cherry on Westbrook's sloppy sundae. And yet it's extremely hard to defend him or vouch for him or argue that he's in that special category of alphas who can lead his team to a championship.
There's great disconnect between the evolved brain and lizard brain. The two camps fundamentally disagree if reading body language and screen-grabbed pictures to discern effort is a good use of time. But against all odds Houston is providing an opportunity to dust off the Predator handshake meme because no matter what one's philosophy, we can all agree Harden's inability to get the basketball doomed the Rockets. And it sure looks like it was spurred on by inaction.
That's where we are this morning. Westbrook was A PROBLEM but not in a good way. Harden looked like a guy who didn't want to do the hard work of solving that internal problem. Progressive and old-school basketball minds alike can be united in shaking side to side, knowing things need to change — and quickly.