Shepard: Don’t Blame Harden For Rockets' Loss To Lakers

Houston Rockets NBA
Photo credit USA Today Images
By CBS Sports Radio

I need to be objective, and facts don’t lie. Houston Rockets guard James Harden is 1-6 in his last seven elimination games. That is not a stat that any superstar should be proud of. With that being said, THIS series loss to the Lakers doesn’t fall on Harden. In fact, of any Rocket in this series, he is the least to blame. 

Take, for instance, Game 5 alone where the Rockets got eliminated. Harden had 19 points at half; the other four Rockets starters combined had 18 points. Harden, not LeBron James or Anthony Davis, finished with a game-high of 30 points in that elimination game. Harden finished with 12 made baskets. No other Rockets player in this game had more than four. Harden shot 60 percent from the floor; the rest of the Rockets starters combined for less than 30 percent shooting. Lakers Guard Talen Horton-Tucker had as many made baskets as any other Rockets player other than Harden. Quick, what college did Tucker play for? (Full disclosure, I didn’t know either.) Harden for the series averaged over 29 PPG, 7 APG and 5 APG. He was also efficient, shooting over 47 percent from the field. Considering he averaged over seven threes per game in this series, that is a pretty good shooting percentage. Harden just happened to lose to two of the five best players in the world. Those two being LeBron and Anthony Davis. By the way, Harden averaged 4 more PPG and the same amount of APG as LeBron. The three-time Finals MVP had him on rebounds and blocks, but in fairness, LeBron is the much bigger player. Any time your numbers are comparable to one of the five greatest players to ever live who is still in his prime, that needs to be taken into the equation of who is truly to blame for a series loss. But wait, the Rockets haven’t made it to an NBA Finals in the last eight years and Harden has been there for all eight of those years, so doesn’t any series loss fall on him? Not exactly! The great players and coaches that Harden has been surrounded with in Houston have fallen way short of that NBA title themselves when they weren't with Harden. In fact, they have had their most success with Harden. The Chris Paul Factor Harden should have made it to an NBA Finals because he had Chris Paul, right? As the Rockets best player, Harden made the conference finals at 25 years old in 2015. That was before Paul ever got to Houston. It took Paul 13 seasons to make the conference finals. He made that conference finals with Harden as the best player on that team in 2018. Harden was the MVP of that season for crying out loud. Harden made a conference finals without Paul, and Paul’s only career conference finals appearance came with Harden. We need to keep that in mind! But What About Dwight Howard? Before coming to Houston, Howard left on bad terms with both the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. With Kobe being injured and unable to play in the 2013 postseason, Howard was the Lakers’ best player. Do you know what happened? Howard and the Lakers got swept. After spending three years in Houston with Harden, Howard has suited up for FOUR different teams in the last FOUR seasons. In a majority of those situations, it was because the team wanted to part ways. But Harden Had Another MVP In Russell Westbrook This Season When Kevin Durant left the Thunder in 2016, Westbrook became that team’s best player. As the Thunder’s best player, Westbrook's playoff record was 4-12. Over those same three seasons, Harden’s record in the postseason was 24-15. You tell me who wins and succeeds in the postseason more, Westbrook or Harden? It's not even close! Westbrook in this Lakers series averaged one less turnover per game than he did assists per game. He shot 24 percent from three, 57 percent from the FREE THROW line and averaged less than 20 PPG in this series. The Mike D’Antoni Factor I will need two paragraphs for this. D’Antoni is a great regular season coach, BUT a mediocre postseason coach. In D’Antoni's first season with the Phoenix Suns, they were the No. 1 seed and favorites to get to the NBA Finals. The Spurs took them out in five games. D’Antoni, in his last playoff run in Phoenix, had three Hall of Famers (Shaq, Grant Hill and Steve Nash) and a prime Amar'e C Stoudemire (All-NBA Second Team that season). Nash was still at the tail end of his prime. Hill wasn’t, but was still very good. Shaq wasn’t in his prime, but was still an All-Star-caliber Player. They won ONE playoff game that season. Before coming to the Rockets, D’Antoni had been an NBA head coach for 12 seasons. Not once in those 12 seasons has a team coached by D’Antoni ever made it to an NBA Finals. With the Suns, Lakers and Rockets, he always had an MVP (Nash, Kobe and Harden) on his team. The one time he didn’t have an MVP on his team was when he coached the Knicks for four seasons. He won ZERO playoff games during his time in the Big Apple. In his last seven years of coaching before coming to the Rockets, D’Antoni was 1-12 in the postseason. Getting back to Harden, could he have done more in this series against the Lakers? Absolutely! As the star player, you can’t make just two field goals in a must-win game. That was the case in Game 4. That was by far his worst game of the series, and he still managed to score 21 points on 11 shots and finished with 10 assists. Even in his worst game of the series by far, he still was productive. Harden and the Rockets have their work cut out for them. I get the narrative that for the past eight years in Houston the same constant in falling short of an NBA title is Harden. However, the pieces around him are as much to blame, if not more so. He has come up short in multiple series with the Rockets, but that wasn’t the case in THIS instance. Before we point the finger at one of the best scorers in the history of the game, let’s not forget to look a plethora of factors as to why the Rockets continue to fall short. There is no shame in losing to LeBron and Anthony Davis, but if we want to play the blame game, Harden – for this particular series – falls way down the line on this list!

CBS Sports Radio producer David Shepard is a former ESPN researcher, a former Division I college basketball practice player, and the host of The Good Shepard YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter @TheGoodShepard_.