Just a few months ago, the Houston Rockets weren’t expected to even compete for the playoffs let alone have the seventh seed all but wrapped up with just 14 games to go. But Houston has greatly exceeded expectations this season and looks like a legitimate dark horse contender due to its outstanding offense.
Still, the odds are stacked heavily against the Rockets, who will need to cut through the West’s elite in order to advance through the postseason. Houston will need to put forth a heroic effort to win a first round playoff matchup, and one player in particular must elevate his game: James Harden.
Harden proved in last year’s playoffs that he can be an excellent defender when he chooses to be. However, that desire to shut down opponents hasn’t always been present this season, and Harden has often seemed somewhat disinterested on the defensive end.
In order for the Rockets to truly compete in the playoffs, Harden must lead the charge at both ends of the court, taking as much pride in his defense as he does in his scoring ability.
As an underdog, Houston cannot afford to be outworked in the postseason, which means the whole team must step up its defensive effort. Harden in particular must set the example for his peers to follow by showing a new dedication to getting stops.
Though Harden boasts a formidable shooting stroke and can heat up from outside on any given night, his greatest strength undoubtedly lies in his uncanny ability to get into the paint and initiate contact. Harden leads the league in free-throw attempts per game, and he capitalizes on those opportunities, connecting on 86 percent of his attempts.
Opposing defenses will try to close down the middle and force Harden to operate from the perimeter. However, the Rockets cannot afford to have Harden settle for outside shots; he must continue to attack the rim and earn free-throw attempts, thereby opening up his teammates for outside shots and forcing the opponent into foul trouble.
Though Harden has been a huge factor in Houston’s success this season, one man cannot carry a team on his own. Harden must trust his teammates to make the right plays in the postseason. He cannot dominate all possessions if Houston is to keep its opponents on their toes.
Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino have all shown the ability to catch fire on any given night, and Harden must give his fellow perimeter players the opportunity to do so by keeping the ball moving.
No matter how talented of a scorer Harden is, he cannot knock down every shot he takes. Therefore, he must set an example for his teammates by constantly looking for the best shots and maintaining a balanced offense. When they spread the wealth, the Rockets can be the best offensive team in basketball. The playoffs would be a great time to prove that.
We all know Harden can score, but can he score when it truly counts? That’s the question the star 2-guard will need to answer in the postseason, especially coming off a disappointing performance in this past NBA Finals.
It will not be enough for Harden to maintain his already excellent level of play in the playoffs; he must elevate it, offering more effort and more production in every facet of his game. He must be especially deadly down the stretch, when every second of a crucial game could decide the outcome.
This does not necessarily mean Harden must play hero ball. As exciting as it is to see a top player drill a difficult game-winning shot, isolation plays are not always the best way to finish games. Rather, Harden must play to his strengths, find a way to attack the rim, and either finish the game himself or find the right teammate for an open shot.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Rockets would find themselves pitched against the reigning Western champs, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder also happen to be the team that traded Harden to Houston at the beginning of the season. So it would seem that this matchup might provide Harden with some extra incentive to dominate.
Harden has enjoyed a breakout season following the trade, and his performance may have already caused some regrets for the Thunder organization. But taking down his former team in the first round of the playoffs would be the cherry on top of an already outstanding season for Harden.
The Bearded One must refuse to back down against former teammate Kevin Durant. Harden must fight to match Durant on every play and be willing to defend his superstar opponents with all the energy he can muster. Most of all, Harden must play with a chip on his shoulder in order to truly show the Thunder what they’re missing.