No matter how many games the Houston Rockets won in the regular season, there have been a legion of detractors who declared that those wins were pointless. The Rockets are chokers, they said. Chris Paul is a choker. James Harden is a choker. They will fade when it matters most.
But on Monday night, James Harden stepped up when it mattered and smashed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ hopes of turning this into a competitive series. As Tim MacMahon with ESPN noted, he scored 22 points in the third quarter, outscored Minnesota by himself, and led the Rockets to a staggering 50 point quarter, the most in the playoffs in over 50 years. Just like that, the game was over and the series is probably over. Harden finished with 36 points in 33 minutes and silenced the detractors.
They will come out again the next time Harden has a bad or mediocre game. But when Harden eventually retires, Rockets fans will point to this game as an example of his ability to shine in the postseason. And in time, perhaps this will be “The Harden Game” which will put paid to Harden’s past playoff reputation.
Coming Through When It Counts
Rockets fans cannot deny that Harden has had plenty of playoff struggles over the past six seasons. There was the 2014 series against Portland. There was Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors in 2015 when he had 12 turnovers. There was that Game 6 against San Antonio last year. Even the greatest Rockets playoff victory of the Harden era came with Harden sitting on the bench and Josh Smith leading the comeback.
But the funny thing about postseason narratives is that they matter until they don’t. Dirk Nowitzki was known as a choker after playoff losses in 2006 and 2007 that dwarf any of Harden’s failures, but today is known as a clutch star after winning a championship in 2011. In that 2011 run, Dirk had plenty of huge games which became part of his legend, such as his 48 points against Oklahoma City in Game 1.
In fact, every great star has these games which highlight their postseason resume. Olajuwon had his showdown against Robinson. Kobe has his 2001 performance against San Antonio. Durant has his Finals performance last year, and LeBron has had countless moments where he came through. He has been as dominant in the sport as Ricky Carmichael has racing motorbikes in motocross.
What is Harden’s moment? Up until now, Harden’s greatest playoff performance came not as a member of the Rockets, but of the Thunder in 2012 when he eviscerated a powerful Spurs team and hit clutch shots to help bring Oklahoma City to its first NBA finals. But in this series against the Wolves, Harden has already had two great moments in last night and in Game 1 when he scored 44 points while the rest of the Rockets went cold. And if the Rockets defeat Golden State and win the championship, then Harden will have more moments. More games which will once and for all eliminate the narrative of him being a choker.
Of course, the Rockets could lose to the Warriors, or even in the NBA Finals. But it is time for NBA fans to stop blithely assuming that the Rockets and Harden will choke because that is just what they always do. Narratives do not change until they do, and we are seeing a narrative change right before our eyes.