James Harden Has Established Himself as a Star Despite First-Round Loss

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 03:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at the Toyota Center on May 3, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Even a loss in the first round of the playoffs can't dampen what was a fantastic season from James Harden.

It's almost hard to think back to when Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The whole situation went by in a flash. News had come out that he refused a contract extension from the Thunder, and he was almost immediately jettisoned.

OKC's management had essentially chosen Serge Ibaka over Harden and decided he wasn't worth a max deal. The Rockets showed him the money, giving him five years and $80 million.

Upon his move to Houston, Harden needed to establish himself as a star. It's one thing to be the third-best player on a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It's completely different to be the go-to guy and your team's best offensive option.

Fortunately, Harden has proven himself and then some in this year's playoff series against the Thunder. Even with the Russell Westbrook injury, few could have expected the Rockets to compete. Instead, Houston pushed the series to six games, largely on the performances of Harden.

Not Bill Walton was a bit harsh regarding Harden's teammates, but there's something to what he said on Twitter earlier in the night:

In Game 5, the Thunder had no answer for him. Harden went for 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including knocking down seven of his nine three-point attempts. He also recorded eight rebounds.

It was the kind of performance you would expect from one of the biggest stars in the league. His team was looking at an elimination game on the road, and Harden helped to carry the team to victory. The Rockets had nice performances from Omer Asik and Francisco Garcia, but it was Harden who was the team's engine.

Even in the Game 6 loss, Harden managed to score 26 points and record seven assists and six rebounds. The problem was he shot 7-of-22 from the field.

For the series, Harden averaged 26.3 points. He did only shoot 39.1 percent from the field. That's lower than his season average of 43.8 percent.

Still, you have to consider this postseason a major success for Harden and the Rockets. Nobody expected them to advance. Houston is the youngest team in the league, at 24.9 years old. This playoff series was more about getting experience and building for the future. Don't forget the Thunder were bounced by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2010 playoffs.

If this is a sign of things to come, the Rockets are going to become one of the most fun teams to watch, with Harden leading the way.