There may be no player not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant more relentlessly criticized in this generation of the NBA than James Harden. His style of play is grating and takes advantage of foul calls in ways no player has ever done before. He won an MVP and put up statistics not seen since the days of Wilt Chamberlain, but has fallen short of the ultimate goal of an NBA title every year of his career.
I am a fan of Harden's and oftentimes find myself defending the Rockets superstar. Yes, his constant calls for whistles and relying so heavily on free throws can be both lame and not very enjoyable to watch, but his handle and agility for a man that size is absurd. His step-back three is one of the NBA's unstoppable shots and isn't a cheap shot, either. When Harden is on, there are few players I find to be more enjoyable to watch.
What has grown harder and harder to defend, though, are his playoff performances. He just never steps up when his team needs him. In elimination games, he disappears. When Harden sputtered out in previous years, it could have reasonably been chalked up to wear-and-tear; Mike D'Antoni's system gives Harden an unprecedented burden and running isolation plays to account for most of the team's offense is extremely tiring over the course of 82 games plus playoffs.
With this year's strange playoffs, that excuse is out the window. Harden, like everybody else, had four months to rest and recover before embarking on a playoff run. Yet, down 2-1 in the second round to the Los Angeles Lakers, Harden disappeared. Again. He scored 26 points in last night's loss but scored only two baskets. The rest came off free throws. Russell Westbrook, not exactly known as a marksman, made more three-point shots than Harden had field goals. As anyone who's watched the playoffs over the last five years, this is far from Harden's first dud. Via ESPN analytics guru Kirk Goldsberry:
Harden has spent most of his career working towards nearly-unprecedented heights, doing things few other players in history have done. But this is a nearly-unprecedented low. No team, no matter how good the supporting cast might be, is going to win games if their superstar player shoots less than 20 percent from the floor. Harden has done that eight times. Eight. Times.
It has become clear that Harden just isn't a good playoff performer. That is disappointing to people like me because he's so talented and fun to watch, but at this point it's undeniable. Maybe it's because he gets fewer whistles in the playoffs. Maybe it's because teams will sell out to stop him and dare his teammates to beat them time and time again, unlike the regular season. Maybe it's both Harden and the Rockets' reliance on three-point shots, which can vary greatly from night to night. Maybe Harden just can't handle the heat and should get out of the kitchen.
Whatever the reason might be, Harden's disappointments in the playoffs now have no excuse. He simply does not rise to the occasion. Now down 3-1, if Harden doesn't do some self-evaluating and come out firing in Game 5, he'll have however long this offseason will be to think about that.