Midway through the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, James Harden stood still. He pounded the ball, once, twice…16 times in total before he flubbed an easy layup off the front of the rim as his legs appeared to give way.
At the time, the Rockets were down by only three points, but the game was essentially over from there. The Warriors grabbed the rebound and flew the other way as Harden waltzed back on defense. As Klay Thompson hit a transition three with the Warriors playing four-on-three, a gassed Harden couldn’t even be seen on the TV frame.
When the Rockets inbounded the ball to Harden on the next play, he dribbled 15 more times to force Golden State into switching Stephen Curry onto him. From there, though, Harden promptly threw a lazy, telegraphed pass that was deflected by Curry, who then beat Harden to the loose ball and flipped a quick pass to Andre Iguodala who skied for a dunk at the other end of the floor. Harden could only stand idly by. By the time the game was over, the Warriors had outscored the Rockets 63-50 over the third and fourth quarters and taken Game 1 on the road.
While there could be another six games to play in this series, it’s also possible we may one day look back at that Harden sequence in the third quarter and say it was the distilled version of the Western Conference Finals: a tired Harden dribbling the air out of the ball and the Warriors taking advantage of his fatigue.
“I think we ran out of gas a little bit in different spots, and they didn’t,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game.
The fatigue issues may be just beginning.
This is hardly the first time apparent exhaustion has gotten the best of Harden. Last year in an elimination game against San Antonio, Harden delivered a performance so poor that it prompted a league executive to text ESPN’s Chris Haynes:
Chris Haynes @ChrisBHaynes
A text from a league executive: “Has an NBA player ever been investigated for point shaving?”
Down 3-2 in the conference semifinals that night, Harden shot 2-for-11 and scored just 10 points with six turnovers before fouling out in the fourth quarter. The Rockets suffered their worst playoff loss in almost a decade, 114-75, to a team that had just lost Kawhi Leonard to injury.
But this is a different year, right? Harden had a fantastic offensive outing in Game 1, but at what cost? There is a troubling trend to watch going into Game 2: In 17 games over the last two postseasons, Harden has shot just 38.7 percent after Game 1, including a miserable 26.8 percent from downtown, en route to averaging 26.8 points per game.
Compare that to Harden’s Game 1 averages of 36.6 points on 51.3 percent shooting from the floor and 48.1 percent from deep. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Harden’s Player Efficiency Rating falls from 39.7 in Game 1s to 21.9 thereafter in the last two postseasons. In this way, he’s the anti-LeBron, who famously claims he likes to feel out a series before he really gets going.
Why the big difference? It may have something to do with rest, at least in the high stress environment of the postseason. With multiple days off, Harden comes out with guns blazing in Game 1, but his production tends to flame out as a series wears on.
In Monday’s Game 1, with five days of rest preceding it, Harden scored 41 points on his home court. With three days of rest going into Game 1 of the first round, Harden dazzled with 44 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves. But without the benefit of extended rest in between games, Harden shot 36.0 percent over the next four games. In the Utah series, the same thing: Harden flung another 41 points in Game 1, but he shot just 38.6 percent in Games 2-5 on a befuddling 6-of-32 from deep (18.8 percent).
Those facts probably aren’t lost on the Warriors. From the looks of Game 1, former Spur Steve Kerr might be copying Gregg Popovich’s playbook from last year and just running Harden out of the gym with ball movement and speed. The Spurs ran five more miles than the Rockets and passed about 250 more times collectively in their series.
In Monday’s Game 1, according to Second Spectrum data, the Warriors passed the ball 283 times compared to the Rockets’ measly 226. But the dribbling numbers are even more eye-opening. The Second Spectrum cameras tallied 1,105 dribbles by Houston compared to just 812 for Golden State, a indicator of just how different both teams’ playing styles have become. Houston finished the game with just three fast-break points while allowing Harden to slow the game down to a crawl.
David J.Phillip/Associated Press
Harden’s iso dribbling was so extreme that you could combine Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s combined dribbles (549) and they still wouldn’t add up to Harden’s 550.
And it played right into the Warriors’ hands. With Harden worn down, Golden State feasted on offense. The Dubs targeted Harden and capitalized when he lost focus or energy by scoring a ridiculous 138.1 points per 100 possessions in the second half with Harden on the floor, per NBA.com. In the six minutes he was off the floor, the Warriors’ offensive rating plummeted to 102.0.
Those defensive problems aren’t new, either. In the first quarter of their series loss to the Spurs last season, the Rockets’ defensive efficiency was an impressive 105.7. But in fourth quarters, it ballooned to 117.0 as the Spurs ran away with the series.
Chris Paul was supposed to shoulder the burden and prevent this sort of flameout from happening again this season. But in Game 1, Paul finished with just three assists and two fewer minutes of possession compared to Harden, who seemed determined to single-handedly try to take down the Warriors one dribble at a time.
To their credit, the Rockets won 65 games in the regular season playing this way, and they were successful in a lot of those isolations in Game 1. But it backfired in a big way as the Warriors pulled away late and took advantage of Harden’s fatigue down the stretch.
Before Tuesday’s practice, D’Antoni was shook off concerns that the Rockets dribble it out too much.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, they iso! That’s all they do.’ No, it isn’t,” D’Antoni said. “That’s what we do best. We scored like 60 percent of the time on it. It’s like … ‘Oh, they don’t pass. Everybody stands.’ Really? Have you watched us for 82 games?
“That’s what we do. We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it. And we can’t get off who we are. Embrace it. Just be better at who we are and don’t worry about if somebody else solves the puzzle a different way.”
The strategy might work against 28 other teams and also may earn Harden an MVP, but these is the defending champion Warriors. Despite a top-six defense in the regular season, the Rockets surrendered 115.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season against the Warriors, and got blitzed again in Game 1 to the tune of 119 points.
Bob Levey/Getty Images
This may be the Rockets’ way, but at this time of year, they have to be smarter about preserving Harden’s energy and not burning him out with isolation after isolation. If Harden’s production wanes again like it has after other Game 1s lately, the Rockets need to call on Paul and the new supporting cast to pick up the slack. This late in the playoffs, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
As Kerr said: “We got off to a slow start, but we hung in there. It’s a long game, 48 minutes.”
Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full time since 2010, and joined B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Spotlight Media Ventures and regularly hosts The Basketball Friends podcast for the Leverage The Chat multimedia network. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.