In Memoriam: The Confouding Playoffs of the Houston Rockets and its MVP Runner Up

As we reluctantly submit ourselves to the NBA Finals equivalent of Super Bowl week, engaging in storylines surrounding Klay’s bloody ear, LeBron’s redemption quest, the littlest member of the Curry family and endless back and forth about matchups, the NBA’s most schizophrenic team was the latest to bow out of the postseason, leaving a hazy memory and unfulfilled narrative regarding its place on the NBA’s totem pole.

The Rockets are the league’s true enigma. An organization hellbent on adhering to the analytical movement employs the incredulously inefficient play of Josh Smith. A team repeatedly bashed for lacking the focus, toughness and leadership to overcome adversity erased a 3-1 series deficit and completed one of the greatest series comebacks in NBA history. A team that seems overly reliant on one player and repeatedly suffers through ghastly net ratings with its star on the bench saved its season with that very same player riding the pine like it was his day job. Understanding the Rockets is more complex than the plot of a Christopher Nolan movie. In Nolan films, however, subtle keys and hints exist offering a glimpse into what may happen next, but with the Rockets it is utter randomness with as much predictability as Corey Brewer on an open court fastbreak.

rockets

The Rockets are a macrocosm of its MVP runner-up and breakfast defector, James Harden. Harden’s postseason career has been marred by woeful shooting percentages (2012 NBA Finals)[1] and turnover-infested performances with his team’s season hanging in the balance, but it is also stocked with transcendent moments (2012 WCF) of star-gazed simplification of the sport of basketball.

This year’s postseason was just another in the conflicting realm of the bearded menace. His series against the defenseless Mavs saw his usual dose of impressive scoring numbers and was highlighted by a 42-point, nine assist explosion in Game 3. In the conference semis, Harden’s Rockets were left for dead after he failed to encapsulate the offensive dominance connected with his moniker adding to the surprisingly soft declarations of Harden’s playoff shortcomings. If that weren’t enough, head coach Kevin McHale opted against playing Harden during the team’s most dire circumstances, and was PRAISED for it after the Rockets inexplicably erased the sizeable Clippers lead and lived to fight another day with a Game 6 victory. In the deciding Game 7, Harden displayed no signs of shame or disorientated confidence after his Game 6 benching, pouring in 30 points, making a casual 18 trips to the free throw line, snaring seven rebounds and dropping eight assists.

james harden 2

The recently completed conference finals were the ultimate snapshot of Harden, combining bedazzlement and bewilderment in a way nature never intended, but Harden has somehow made completely ordinary. He was narrowly outdueled by the MVP Steph Curry in Game 1, showcased his efficiency in gloriously entertaining fashion before falling victim to Lil’ B’s curse in Game 2, was awful in Game 3, played the best game of his career in the Rockets’ sole victory in Game 4 and for the sake of Harden’s well-being let’s not discuss his Game 5[2] in any further detail. That’s a four-game stretch from Game 2 through Game 5 where Harden alternated performances in which his MVP-endorsers glistened with pride only to be downtrodden in the next game as Harden resembled a retired cook with a stray beard who had minimal background training in basketball.

harden benched

The most peculiar aspect of Harden’s postseason roller coaster is the unaffected nature of his attitude, emotion, playing style, etc. while he navigates the peaks and valleys of his game to game performance. At no specific moment can even the most disciplined fans point to increased aggressiveness, a pressing nature or a gladiator stare or facial expression signaling an oncoming storm in solo heroism from Harden. He always seems to playing the game at his own leisure and pace while appearing either apathetic or ignorant to heightened stakes, emotional swings, hyped up matchups, etc. That’s not an insult on Harden[3] it’s merely an observation. And if James Harden has taught us anything about attempting to craft his legacy from observations, it’s what you’ve witnessed so far rarely offers any indication of what you will see next.

[1] Playoff field goal percentage

2012 NBA Finals (L 4-1)- 37.5

2013 NBA Playoffs (1st RD- L 4-2)- 39.1

2014 NBA Playoffs (1st RD- L 4-2)- 37.6

[2] 14 points on 2-11 FG with an all-time playoff record 13 turnovers.

[3] I actually find this refreshing with Harden, as stars are always attempting to put on intimidating looks and acts to hype themselves up from the media in specific moments. The worst part is the media runs with it and tries to make into something bigger than a man jutting out his lower lip or slightly tilting his forehead forward or scrunching up their nose.

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