A little too cool, in fact.
Fresh off the franchise's first 50-win season in five years, Houston needs Harden to match the rising temperature of the playoff heat. The typically scorching scorer has gone ice cold instead:
He should have a game built for the spotlight.
With herky-jerky pace and direction changes, a watchful distributing eye and a reasonably reliable long-range stroke, he's a constant scoring threat who should thrive in the closely officiated world of playoff hoops. A dynamic scorer (25.4 points) and setup man (6.1 assists) in the regular season, he seemed primed to do superstar things in this superstar-driven tournament.
The quantity of a key contributor is there: 22.5 points, 5.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds. The quality, though, is nonexistent. He's a walking negative, reflected best in his blood-stained shot chart.
Harden has launched 47 shots through Houston's first two playoff games, 12 fewer than Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Harden has turned his 47 shots into 45 points. Aldridge's 59 shots have yielded 89 points.
Aldridge's Blazers have a 2-0 series lead over Harden's Rockets, with both victories coming at Houston's Toyota Center.
Harden went for 27 points on 8-of-28 shooting in Houston's 122-120 overtime loss in Game 1. The two-time All-Star shouldered as much blame as he could find.
"I have to play better," he said, via Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle. "I didn’t shoot the ball well. I was rusty. I have to pick it up."
With his talent and an apparently renewed focus, Harden sounded ready for a monstrous Game 2 effort. His stat sheet wound up terrifying, but not how he wanted it: 18 points on 6-of-19 shooting, four assists, five turnovers, six personal fouls.
He wasn't nearly as interested in taking the blame for the Rockets' 112-105 loss Wednesday night. Houston's struggles were, in his eyes, shared by the entire team.
"We don't have our same flow, our same mojo that we had throughout the season," he said, via Kristie Rieken of The Associated Press. "We don't have our same swag...we've got to get that back."
Dwight Howard's mojo seemed fine. Superman poured in 32 points to go along with 14 rebounds and four blocks. The career 57.4 percent free-throw shooter even finished 6-of-7 at the charity stripe.
Patrick Beverley did his job. Not only did he put 14 points on his stat line, four above his season average, but he also held Portland All-Star point guard Damian Lillard to 3-of-14 shooting from the field.
His teammates are elevating their games. Harden is heading the opposite direction. If the Rockets were getting his regular-season form (.456/.366/.866 shooting, 3.6 turnovers) instead of the playoff Harden (.298/.263/.857 shooting, 4.5 turnovers), this could be a completely different series. Houston could be in control of its fate instead of, as Harden put it, now facing a must-win situation, via Blazers Edge's Ben Golliver:
Harden can't avoid the numbers. Not with his daily trips to the $7 million, statistic-scrolling locker room Rockets general manager Daryl Morey built.
That doesn't mean the bearded baller will discuss this rough patch, though.
When asked about his shooting struggles by a national media member, Harden said simply, "It's basketball," via ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh. "You're going to miss shots. It's basketball, that's it."
Well, it's playoff basketball. And historically, that hasn't treated him well.
He shot just 39.1 percent during Houston's opening-round loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. He was invisible—or visible for the wrong reasons—while playing for OKC at the 2012 NBA Finals (12.4 points on .375/.318/.792 shooting).
There's a reason to be concerned about his offensive struggles. A reason everyone can see but him.
"I'm not worried about my offense, I'm worried about our defense—our defense as a team," he said, via Haberstroh.
If Harden is worried about defense, there's video evidence to suggest that's a career first for the scoring guard. More likely, he knows all too well about his shooting troubles (past and present) and is worried to the point of panic.
"You've never seen someone shoot 29 percent in two games? You must not watch basketball," an aggravated Harden told the aforementioned reporter. "Weirdo."
That wasn't even Harden's only media run-in of the night:
He sounds like someone wilting under the pressure, which should be a very troubling trend considering these two games were the 50th and 51st tastes of postseason basketball of his career. This stage isn't new, yet he's shaking like an understudy forced into unexpected duty.
The Blazers have done well to control tempo, and guard Wesley Matthews has been glued to Harden's hip since the start of the series. But Harden is supposed to be one of the league's elite scorers—he's skilled enough that it shouldn't matter what the defense does.
Yet he's letting Portland (16th in defensive efficiency during the regular season) dictate his effectiveness. He's not making the same aggressive drives to the basket. His playing time is up nearly seven minutes from the regular season (44.5 from 38.0), but he's lost more than two free throws a night (7.0 from 9.1).
Stephen Curry can't believe the green light Harden has given himself (9.5 three-point attempts a night). Considering he's converted just 26.3 percent of those looks, Harden may not believe it himself.
Harden has to be special at the offensive end, because he's going to give back a lot of what he gets at the opposite side. He'll never bring two-way support, and once his good side goes bad, he's a major net loss.
The Blazers aren't going to stop scoring. Aldridge is due to regress, but Lillard, Matthews and Nicolas Batum have more than enough to withstand that loss.
Houston needs a much more efficient attack from Harden, even if that costs him some volume. That means less settling for contested jumpers and fewer forced triples. The ball can't stick in his hand, and he can't get stuck on the perimeter.
The 24-year-old has ice water pumping through his veins, but his system is running too cold right now.
More activity, more movement and more energy expended should heat him back up to a functional temperature. The Rockets can only hope to get his fire restarted before it's too late.
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