After the Rockets lost in last year’s second round, James Harden spoke calmly.
“I know what we need to do,” Harden said. “I know exactly what we need to do. We’ll figure it out this summer.”
Wednesday, Harden yelled with all his might.
Whatever the reason, Harden summoned one of the biggest plays of his career – on defense, no less – to lift Houston to a 104-102 Game 7 win over the Thunder. The Rockets advance to face the Lakers in the second round with Game 1 Friday.
Harden blocked Dort’s game-winning 3-point attempt with five seconds left, preventing a rash of embarrassing storylines about Harden and Houston.
Harden’s comment last year might have reflected his general feeling toward Paul, and the Rockets traded Paul for Westbrook last summer. It was a classic win-now move. Houston surrendered two first-round picks and two first-round swaps for the “upgrade.”
Harden has more than his share of playoff disappointments. This was not a loss he wanted on his record.
Getting outplayed by Dort, an undrafted rookie, would’ve only added to the humiliation.
Harden shot just 4-for-15, including 1-for-9 on 3-pointers, with four turnovers. Dort scored 30 points.
The previous 106 players to score 30 in a Game 7 averaged more than 24 points per game in the regular season. The lowest regular-season scoring average in that group belong to Joe Dumars, who averaged just 11.8 points per game in 1986-87.
Dort averaged just 6.7 (!) points per game in the regular season.
Houston strategically ignored Dort, and obviously Harden attracted plenty of defensive attention (especially from Dort). But this wouldn’t have been about fair analysis. Harden is an MVP. Dort began this season on a two-way contract. The standards aren’t equal.
So, plenty was brewing when Harden made his great closeout, block and emotional reaction.
Bigger goals are still in reach for the Rockets, who exhibited their low floor and high ceiling throughout this series. At the end of regulation in its three losses, Houston trailed by zero, three and four. Finally succeeding in the clutch, the Rockets showed signs they could challenge the Lakers.
Robert Covington (21 points on 6-of-11 shooting with three blocks and three steals) is an awesome complementary player in Houston’s micro-ball scheme. Westbrook (20 points) and Eric Gordon (21 points) added offensive punch with Harden struggling. This is a team that can win without it looking pretty, though sometimes it does look pretty.
The Lakers should be favored in the second-round series. But the Rockets’ unconventional style adds variability. Harden is incredibly talented, and Westbrook – in addition to his own talent – adds a contagious edge.
The steady Thunder were a good first test. For all he did well, Paul (19 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, six turnovers) just wasn’t quite sharp enough in the end. At least Oklahoma City still has all those long-term assets. This wasn’t wasn’t supposed to be the Thunder’s year.
All the pressure was on the Rockets, and that came through with Harden’s passionate scream.