What Houston Rockets Need from James Harden During NBA Playoffs

Jake LapinCorrespondent IApril 22, 2014

The Rockets need Harden now more than ever in the postseason.
The Rockets need Harden now more than ever in the postseason.Noah Graham/Getty Images

The long grind of the regular season is finally through, as James Harden and his Houston Rockets have reached the playoffs as the fourth seed out West.

The Rockets matchup with the fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers is destined to be an exciting series to the finish. There are several interesting matchups to look out for, and each coach has numerous strategies and lineups to tinker with, but the series could come down to which stars perform best. That's where Harden comes in.

Often times in the playoffs, the team with the best stars will win down the stretch. There is a lot of star power in this series. Both teams have a pair of All-Stars: the Blazers have Lamarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard and the Rockets have Dwight Howard and, of course, the Beard.

After a nail-biting Game 1, it was clear which stars performed better, which is why the Blazers came out on top. Aldridge had a franchise record-breaking performance, scoring 46 points and hauling in 18 rebounds before fouling out in the overtime period.

Lillard did pretty well himself, dropping 31 points, including several key buckets in OT to secure the win for Portland. Aldridge and Lillard became the first tandem in the playoffs to score 45 and 30 since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen back in 1992.

Harden attempted 14 three-pointers in Game 1, but only made three.
Harden attempted 14 three-pointers in Game 1, but only made three.Bob Levey/Getty Images

On the stat sheet, Harden and Howard had fairly good games as well. Howard scored 27 to go along with his 15 boards, which is nothing to hang your head about. Harden tacked on 27 himself, but upon a closer look, a very inefficient 27 points.

After missing the game-tying jumper as time expired, Harden officially finished his night shooting 8-of-28 from the floor, including 3-of-14 from three-point range. It took Harden 28 shots to climb all the way to just 27 points, and 14 of those shots were three-pointers! This is a terrible performance from your best player.

When it mattered most, Harden gave the Rockets a lackluster performance that left them falling short and losing home-court advantage. He had a chance to redeem himself when the game went to overtime, but he went 0-for-4 in the final five minutes not scoring a single point.

It was unfortunate timing for Harden's worst outing against the Blazers all season. During the teams' four regular season meetings, Harden averaged over 30 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Not only were his stats good, but they were also very efficient.

Harden shot 48 percent from the floor, about 20 percentage points higher than his shot percentage in Game 1. He also shot over 45 percent from deep, which is much better than his 21 percent in the playoff opener.

Bottom line, Harden is off to a terrible start in what can hopefully still be a long playoff run. If the Rockets want to win this series and potentially more as the postseason continues, they will need Harden to step up his game big time.

Harden has a good supporting cast. He has Howard inside, along with Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Terrence Jones and other good scorers to help him put points on the scoreboard. However, with the Rockets impotence on defense, Houston still needs the Beard to average points in the upper twenties, at least, to have a good chance.

In the majority of Houston's wins over other playoff contenders this season, Harden scored a good amount of points to give the Rockets a lift. Even though their offense is elite, the Rockets still rely on Harden a lot in certain situations to get the offense going.

Often times, the offense is stagnant and the team watches Harden isolate on several possessions. Many of these possessions came up empty in Game 1, with Harden forcing up low-percentage mid-range jumpers. The Rockets are at their best when this doesn't happen, and the ball is moving quickly.

In these playoffs, Houston needs Harden to keep scoring at a high rate, but he must do it efficiently and keep the isolations down to a minimum. Also, even though he's a great long distance shooter, he cannot continue to settle for threes like he did in Game 1. He has to attack the basket for high-percentage shots and to get to the free throw line, like he has his entire career.

Beyond just scoring, however, the Rockets need Harden to be a clutch leader during crunch time. Harden's zero points in OT were killer for Houston. He has been the guy that gets the call in the closing seconds all season long, and has done a pretty good job at it too, so he can't stop now. The Rockets desperately need him to deliver down the stretch if they want to win close games and advance.

Now let's take a quick look at the other end of the floor.

The Blazers went right after James Harden to start the game in the opener.
The Blazers went right after James Harden to start the game in the opener.David J. Phillip

In Game 1, the Blazers game plan was to immediately attack Harden's defense with Wes Matthews. Harden has been known to play lazy defense, and there is plenty of video evidence to support that.

Harden has the athleticism to become a good defender. The problem here is focus and effort, or a lack thereof. He takes his eyes off his man and let's them sneak open far too often.

Sometimes, coach Kevin McHale likes to put Harden on a bigger man in the post. Harden has enough strength and balance to battle down low in the post, and he's much better at it than at chasing scoring wings around the perimeter.

The Rockets have high hopes this postseason. The way the schedule worked out, Houston thinks it has a legitimate shot at making the Western Conference Finals; however, the Rockets and Harden are off to a rocky start. The Rockets need the Beard to score a lot of points, but they must be efficient, and he needs to be able to hold his own on defense from here on out. Otherwise, Houston could have a problem.