When news that LeBron James, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry held a private conference call and established a united front in favor of resuming the season, everyone noticed one name was missing. James Harden was not on that call. Probably because Westbrook was there representing the Rockets, but knowing how sensitive Harden is about his reputation in players circles, this won’t go unnoticed.
For a long time, Harden’s style of play – traveling on a lot of his step-backs (I don’t care what the rules say, that should be traveling) and flopping like his life depended on it – made him the most controversial player in the NBA. He has the numbers, but at what cost?
The other big question about James Harden is his lackluster playoff performance. More often than not, when it’s make or break time, Harden is nowhere to be found. A part of it is probably a consequence of all the workload he does in the regular season, but some of it still leaves us wondering – can James Harden stand tall under the brightest lights?
One of the Rockets’ best playoff moments in recent history happened when Kevin McHale decided to leave Harden on the bench. The Rockets were playing the Clippers in the Western Conference Semis and were down 3-1. Everyone had the Clippers going through to the conference Finals, but Josh Smith and Corey Brewer had other plans.
It was Game 6, and the Clippers were up 19 points late in the third quarter and 12 points with less than eight minutes left in the fourth. Harden was struggling, shooting only 25%. Kevin Mchale pulled him on the bench to wrap up the game when magic happened. Houston outscored the Clippers that quarter by a shocking 40-15 margin, led by a combined 29 points from Brewer and Smith. At one point, Houston went on a 23-2 run, headlined by several dagger 3-pointers from the duo of streaky shooters.
“It was like me [Smith], [Corey] Brewer, Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, and Dwight [Howard]. They benched James [Harden], and that’s why he [Kevin McHale] probably got fired.”Josh Smith, UNINTERRUPTED
Smith pointed out several important facts – McHale was right! Harden sucked, the lineup on the floor was hot, and it was the right decision to leave Harden off the floor. When he came on the bench, Smith told Harden the team has his back, and he has to seal the deal in Game 7 – which he did. Harden led the team with 31 to the Western Conference Finals. McHale played him for 43 minutes in that game. But there was a moment Smith noticed that made him so confident benching Harden in that game got McHale fired.
“I see, I’m just gonna say the [Rockets] management, the whole management like ‘PUT JAMES BACK IN!!!’ We cookin’! Kevin [McHale] like ‘Alright, I got you’ He did that the whole time.”Josh Smith, UNINTERRUPTED
McHale didn’t listen to management and was fired 13 games into the following season. Everyone understood it had more to do with Game 6 of the previous year playoffs, than the start of the next season. The Rockets had one of their greatest playoff moments, and Harden was on the bench for it. It’s a player’s league, right.
Harden and McHale had a thing later when the former Rockets coach questioned Harden’s leadership. A topic Harden is sensitive about, and coming from a coach that benched him in a crucial playoff moment. We had a classic, ‘I don’t want to brag, BUT…’ moment.
“He’s a clown. Honestly. I did anything and everything he asked me to do. I tried to lead this team since I stepped foot here in Houston. To go out there and downplay my name, honestly, he’s never taught me anything to be a leader. But I’ve done a great job. The organization, my coaches. You can ask any of those guys how I worked extremely hard every single day to, obviously, be a better basketball player, but to be a leader as well, defensively as well.”James Harden, SLAM
Yep, that’s James Harden talking about all the leadership he provided on defense in 2017. Can you imagine Tim Duncan sulking because Manu took over a playoff game? I can’t either. James Harden is OK with getting help, under the condition he still gets to be the main guy. I would recommend some Rolling Stones.