Is James Harden Ready to Carry the Houston Rockets in the Playoffs?

John WilmesContributor IApril 22, 2014

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 20:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets falls to the floor during game action in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Toyota Center on April 20, 2014 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 Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets will go as far as the compelling, singular and oft-beloved talent James Harden can take them. But in 2013-14, we added another adjective to his list: frustrating.

The team's leading scorer has drawn at least as much ire as he has praise over the season. Sunday night’s overtime loss in the first game of his team’s Round 1 battle with the Portland Trail Blazers showed us why. His shot chart from the game nearly tells the whole story:

Harden racked up 27 points on the night, but he did it on 8-of-28 shooting, making for a measly 29 percent shooting mark from the floor. How did Harden, a 45 percent shooter on the season, have such a poor game against these Blazers, among the league's most generous defenders of the paint?

Wesley Matthews’ terrific defense certainly deserves some respect, but Harden has consistently made dunces out of covers equal to or greater than Matthews in the past. His performance in the game was representative of a court outlook that has appeared a bit more than occasionally with Harden this season, much to the chagrin of Rockets fans.

Put simply: Harden settled for too many jumpers. Instead of continuing his nimble freight-train charge all the way to the cup, he was settling for step-backs and mid-range shots as soon as he found separation from Portland’s defense.

Despite his six assists in the contest, the ball often stuck to Harden’s hands as he over-dared Matthews or other Blazers to fall for his combinations of ball fakes, sometimes just standing in place for extended moments. The Houston attack stagnates when Harden, the team's engine, is not properly kinetic.

In Game 2 and through the rest of these daunting Western Conference Playoffs, the Rockets need Harden to be a more pointed attacker and a more holistic facilitator in the half-court. Houston will reach top thrust only when it plays inside before outside, a strategy that is sure to open up the three-point arc for Harden's teammates as well.

Not to mention how a more aggressive Harden could free up the floor for Dwight Howard, who yearns for more chances to score:

Harden, of course, has done such a job before. On March 9 he turned in a marvelous performance against the Blazers, scoring 41 points and grabbing six steals and 10 rebounds to lead his team to a 118-113 comeback victory in overtime. Watch the highlights from the night and you’ll see the man bound for All-NBA honors:

At his best, the former Sixth Man of the Year doesn't just drive more fearlessly and take wiser shots. He also shows a keen sense of how his fancy footwork’s misdirection of the defense creates opportunities for himself and his team.

Harden knows it, too, and even said so after the Game 1 loss:

Harden's defense is also a concern. The book on that has been written elsewhere and aplenty, but ultimately his lack of awareness on that side of the ball is less integral than his offensive performance to the Rockets' first-round success.

Houston has already proved it can beat almost anybody—and certainly the Blazers—while hiding Harden defensively. The Rockets won 54 games this year despite his jaw-dropping minus-2.73 defensive real plus-minus rating.

If Houston advances, however, Harden will need to guard more effectively for the team to stand a chance against the ever-sharp machinations of the San Antonio Spurs' motion offense.

Perhaps Harden deserves some benefit of the doubt for being a sieve thus far; he is, after all, often an offense unto himself, running the floor for Houston at a rate nearly equivalent to what Steve Nash did for the "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns. He's pushing the ball down the floor constantly, managing one of the league's top offenses, and one that operates with unusual speed. It's hard to have much left for the other side.

David J. Phillip

But the postseason has arrived, and with it comes a higher bar. 

The Rockets need Harden to D up, but most of all they need him to be a hero without playing hero ball. It’s a fine line and one especially hard to walk under the duress of playoff pressure. Is Harden up to the challenge?