For the Houston Rockets to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, Rockets’ All-Star James Harden must go from elite scorer to elite player. As the series nears closer the question is not “can” the offensive minded guard make this metamorphosis, but rather “will” he?
Prior to the 2009 NBA draft most pundits ranked the 6’5 guard as a top five prospect, and when Oklahoma City selected Harden the consensus was the All-American would translate well into the NBA. It is safe to say the five time All-Star has done more than just translate well, he has exceeded all expectations. With that being said it is time to up the ante. If we as fans are to believe the scorer can be anything other than a numbers harlot now is the time for the Houston star to do so. The Spurs and specifically forward Kawhi Leonard are on the horizon, and the game done changed for young Mr. Harden.
This is a career defining series for the Southern California native, and how the Rockets perform will be the key defining factor. Scoring 30 plus points and distributing 10 or more dimes won’t cut it this round. Houston must win this series for James to be considered more than just another George Gervin, Dominque Wilkins, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. All were or are phenomenal scorers who never were capable of getting their squad over the hump.
Yes the challenge is daunting, as most with extreme consequences are. Nevertheless, the time has come to see if the former Sun Devil is ready to eat at the big boy table. The NBA has always provided a divisive line between superior and inferior, clearly defining who resided where. We remember and salute the leaders from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal and Larry Bird to LeBron James, only to recall Steve Nash, Bernard King, Rolando Blackman, and Charles Barkley to name a few. This is where Harden is teetering.
In his seventh season “the Beard” has been nothing short of spectacular, posting a career high in points per (29.1), rebounds per (8.1), and assists per (11.1). The individual numbers do not tail off when going against the likes of Boston (33.5 ppg/7.0 rpg/9.5 apg), Cleveland (39.5 ppg/8.5 rpg/13.0 apg), Golden State (21.8 ppg/11.0 rpg/11.3 apg), or San Antonio (29.8 ppg/9.0 rpg/11.8 apg). However, a record of 4 – 8 is where things get questionable and the gumbo really gets thick when you focus solely on the Spurs and Warriors results. The Houston Rocket is 2 – 6 versus the one and two seeds in the western conference, shooting a gut wrenching 40 percent.
This is why it is imperative the former Arizona State All-American win this series, at this time and versus this team. If he ever desires to reside in the upper echelon of top players in the league nothing short of victory is acceptable. Harden is not hampered by an inferior team like say a Russell Westbrook. No, the Rocket guard is armed with a top shooter in guard Eric Gordon, a playoff tested Nene who has been a fixture of multiple 50 win clubs, guard Lou Williams a top reserve in the league, and a champion in Trevor Arizia. So there can be no excuses disguised as reasons if the playoff journey ends here for the MVP candidate.
In fact, the guard’s biggest impediment may come from his very own coach. Mike D’Antoni is 0 – 4 versus the Spurs in the playoffs and before defeating the Thunder had a combined playoff record of 26 – 33. To say the coach does not have the same zest for defense would be stating the obvious. But it is D’Antoni’s inability to make in-game adjustments that also play a role in his playoff demise. It will be incumbent upon the scorer to captain the offense AND the defense for Houston to win. Those impeccable basketball instincts will be necessary to sustain the head coach’s habitual shortcomings.
Then there is the whole Kawhi Leonard playing the best ball of his career problem. More specifically, how Harden handles being matched up against the forward will ultimately be the deciding factor in the series. There is zero doubt the All-Star starter will get his numbers. The question is can he avoid the very same fate he dealt to Westbrook, another numbers maverick. This Spurs group, while still potent, is not the team that had been so formidable in previous years. Forward LaMarcus Aldridge has seen his scoring dip in the playoffs (17.3 to 14.8) while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are entering senior citizen status. So Houston’s most proficient rocket has the opportunity to seize the moment.
This is the series that will show every NBA fan if Mr. Harden is merely another overly celebrated scorer or legitimate championship leader. Scorers have always captivated the league and led us all to believe they would one day be champions. Yet, the one thing Durant’s bolt to Golden State has taught us, is there is a gargantuan difference between leading your team in scoring and leading your team to a title. Or at the very least leading your team to consistently compete for a title.
It will take more than points and passes to win this series, it will take a herculean effort. An effort that is common among the game’s elite. Thus far James has been more scoring enigma than elite player, but now is the time for him to announce where he resides on that pendulum. Harden’s game has evolved (or revolved depending who you ask) around his scoring ability. To date that has been good enough for the Rockets, but it is time for the team and its fans to demand more. Or else everything that has transpired, from the triple-doubles to the magnificent scoring outputs, will only be referenced for what never came from those performances.