James Harden chose one of the worst times to play a terrible game. He could get away with a performance like that during the regular season but not during the playoffs, where people expect star players to become superhuman and never lose. The mythical playoffs: title winners become legends and then celebrated forever, while other great players are diminished after falling short of a championship. Their careers reduced to the “Well, he was great, but…” qualifier as if all of the previous baskets made and wins never even mattered. Congratulations, James Harden, you were one of the best players all season, but according to most sports pundits, that’s not good enough and this last game’s performance may forever define your career. Strange how one game changes everything, right? However, on the other hand, this game was important for his team’s playoff survival. No one can deny that Harden’s no-show performance for a critical playoff game was an awful look for a star player who was an MVP candidate this past season. What does this mean for Harden? How do we define Harden now that his season has ended?
To start with, can certain sports media people and fans stop spouting the following narrative? “If James Harden would have hoisted up 30 shots, even if he only made two of those shots, I would have at least excused his performance, because he would have tried to put his team on his back.” No, you would not have excused Harden’s performance under that scenario. Stop being disingenuous here. We all know the narrative would have shifted to something like, “Why was Harden so selfish? Why didn’t he try to get his teammates involved? It was obvious for anyone to see his game was off that night. His shot wasn’t falling.” Sports media, fans, etc., do not offer condolences for losses.
Remember when one of the MVP arguments used for Russell Westbrook against James Harden was that Harden’s teammates were better; therefore, Russell’s team carrying was more impressive than Harden’s? Well, how does that look now? With James Harden bent on passing the ball, the Rockets didn’t look competent in that playoff game, and this was a team that not only won 55 games during the regular season, but they routed the Spurs in Games One and Four during their playoff series. It looks like Harden’s play was pretty darn valuable for the Rockets. For those who will say that one game doesn’t define the quality of his teammates – well… remember that when trashing Harden’s entire season after this one playoff game.
The ultimate definition for a player’s season (or career) by some people is “the Ringzzz” tally: how many rings did a player win? This question is everything for some people. It drove LeBron James to Miami and Kevin Durant to Golden State. Obviously, Harden has fallen short here. He played in one NBA Finals, and he didn’t play his best basketball during that series, either. Yes, winning championships are important, but people are taking this way too far. How far? Way out there, because one opinion that seems to have gained ground these days is that it is better for a team to experience a first round beating instead of losing in the NBA Finals. Think about that for a second or two. People believe that losing in the first round is better than actually winning three playoff series to get to the championship round, because losing there does not blemish the Finals record. The lack of logic is astounding. Anyway, Harden wasn’t winning a ring this year. Even if the Rockets somehow got past the Spurs, they weren’t beating both Golden State and Cleveland.
Why can’t we just say Harden’s last game was not only disappointing (by a wide margin), but it was also unexpected due to his caliber of play during the regular season? There’s no need to write his career’s final chapter yet, because he should have quite a few more years to get that all-important title. Hopefully, he achieves that level of success, or he will have to endure the “Well, he was a great regular season player, but…” statement every time someone mentions his name in a basketball context.