Bob Levey/Getty Images
When James Harden takes over a game, scores 17 of his 47 points in the fourth quarter and hauls the Houston Rockets to victory over a Los Angeles Clippers team viewed by most as ranking higher in the contender hierarchy, you want to draw far-reaching conclusions.
You want to view Houston’s grimy 102-93 victory, achieved without rotation mainstays Eric Gordon and Danuel House Jr., as a harbinger of what’s to come. As proof that Harden and the Rockets can take down the best of the best, that their extreme style of play—everything from shot selection to an overwhelming reliance on one player—works in shootouts and low-scoring rock fights alike.
And look, Harden was masterful.
He navigated switches and traps. He split doubles and gave up the ball when he had to. The reigning scoring champ continued a season-opening run like nothing we’ve seen since the NBA was a nine-team league in which three cigarettes, chain-smoked, were acceptable halftime pick-me-ups.
He was unsolvable, as usual. Relentless when pressured and just as deadly whenever the Clippers relaxed.
Which they did.
Still, though it’s true Harden is scoring at even higher rates than he did last season, and though the introduction of Russell Westbrook into the Rockets mix changes the team’s makeup, it’s hard to argue we learned anything new about the parties involved.
Unless you missed the entirety of 2018-19, you’re well aware Harden is a historically potent scorer. And unless you also overlooked Houston’s last seven seasons (all with Harden), you know it wins a ton of games against all sorts of regular-season opponents every year. The Rockets have averaged 52.7 victories per season since Harden arrived.
What we don’t know, and what Wednesday’s win can’t help us know, is whether Harden and the Rockets can do this when the stakes are highest.
This isn’t one of those referendums on whether jump-shooting teams can win championships. If recent history is any guide, only jump-shooting teams can win championships. They just have to make those jump shots…and also defend, pass, try hard, not choke, etc.
This is about whether Harden and these Rockets, specifically, can get it done.
Granted, the Rockets probably should have downed the Golden State Warriors and reached the NBA Finals in 2018. If they’d avoided that era-defining cold streak from three in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and beaten the Dubs, maybe every aspect of how we think about them would be different. But playoff disappointment is an inextricable part of the Rockets’ story in our current reality.
So is the broad lack of appreciation for Harden’s game.
Nate Silver @NateSilver538
James Harden now averaging 38.2 PPG this season despite not shooting particularly well from the field. Maybe the closest thing we’ve seen to Wilt Chamberlain, both in terms of the numbers and in being perceived as too much of a cheat code to receive truly widespread adoration.
Though it feels too old-school to view what the Rockets do from October to April as inconsequential, Harden and Houston have already proved everything in the regular season. They’ve mastered easy mode, but they have yet to succeed at a higher difficulty level.
That’s why the only aspects of a game like Wednesday’s that really matter for the Rockets are the ones that hint at potential postseason vulnerabilities.
Westbrook, for example, was a chilly 6-of-20 from the field. He pogo-sticked into far too many of his low-percentage off-the-dribble twos and gambled too often on defense, as evidenced by a ridiculous four first-quarter fouls. He’s simply not the steadying run-the-show second option or trustworthy defender Chris Paul was, and it’s difficult to imagine he will have the self-control to resist his worst instincts in the amped environment of the playoffs.
Eric Gordon’s absence, triggered by knee soreness that ultimately required surgery and will cost him several weeks, is another concern.
When Harden saw hard double-teams, his outlets, ignored by the Clippers, were Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers. Gordon may return to full health and shore things up, but what if he doesn’t? Do the Rockets have enough shooting around Harden to keep defenses remotely honest in a seven-game series?
Don’t forget neither Paul George nor Landry Shamet played for the Clips on Wednesday. Houston was missing a few bodies, but Los Angeles was nowhere near full strength, either.
The Houston optimist could simply point to Harden and essentially say he’s enough. That may be true.
We’ve never seen a scorer like Harden. He shreds every permutation of conventional defense and graduated last year to ripping up the gimmicky, last-resort tactics desperate opponents cooked up to slow him down. Houston’s best chance at getting over the hump lies in the frightening possibility that he is still perfecting his craft, that he’s actually getting better.
Still, Houston’s win and the Harden dominance that produced it leave us without much clarity.
The Rockets answered plenty of questions correctly, sure. But for these guys, a test in November doesn’t count toward the final grade.