All-Star guard James Harden is one of my favorite NBA players of all time (along with Jose Calderon, Eddie House and Tracy McGrady, in case you were wondering), but right now, he’s in dangerous territory.
A year after struggling with his shot in a first-round loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Harden is once again having problems in the postseason. In his lone NBA Finals appearance against the Miami Heat as a member of the Thunder in 2012, Harden absolutely fell apart, and that’s when fans first started dropping the “choke” bomb on The Beard.
After averaging 16.8 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent shooting from long range in the 2011-12 regular season and winning the Sixth Man of the Year award, Harden laid an egg in the NBA Finals, averaging just 12.4 points on 38 percent shooting in a losing effort. Even worse, Harden was at the top of his game in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, averaging 18.5 points and 5.5 rebounds on 49 percent shooting from the field and an unbelievable 61 percent from three-point land against the San Antonio Spurs.
During this year’s regular season, Harden was masterful, consistently dominating in the clutch and leading the Rockets to the fourth seed in what might be the best conference overall in NBA history. Check out how his regular-season numbers compare to his postseason numbers (while the statistical production is extremely similar, the percentages and advanced statistics tell the story):
Regular Season (73 games): 25.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 46 FG percentage, 37 3PT percentage, 87 FT percentage, 23.5 PER
Postseason (five games): 25.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 35 FG percentage, 25, 3PT percentage, 87 FT percentage, 15.2 PER
If you’ve watched Harden during the regular season and postseason, you can see the difference. His rhythm is out of whack, he’s having trouble stepping into shots, he’s tentative with the ball and his handle has been loose.
Harden’s postseason struggles bring to mind another NBA superstar who was known for being fantastic during the regular season and struggling in the postseason: Former Utah Jazz star Karl Malone. Like Harden, Malone’s career playoff numbers are almost identical to his regular-season numbers, but the eye test proves otherwise.
Historically, Malone was the guy who always came up short. He and John Stockton were always in the playoffs, but could never get over that hump. Late in games, Malone was known to apple up, missing critical free throws on multiple occasions to either help an opponent clinch a win or aid them in a comeback.
As much as it pains me to say it, maybe Harden is today’s Malone. Maybe Harden will continue to average 25-5-5 for Western Conference powerhouses for the rest of his prime, helping his team to a top-four seed only to fall apart in the playoffs each year. As a Rockets fan, and as someone who truly loves watching Harden on the basketball court, I hope that isn’t the case.
Harden was quiet for most of Game 5 against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night, but came to life late in the game, hitting a reverse layup and a clutch three-point shot to help Houston stay alive. Hopefully, Harden will carry the momentum of those shots (and a few late-game free throws) into Game 6. If his poor play continues, expect to hear a lot more people comparing The Beard to The Mailman.