HOUSTON — Before he fouled out of the game and calmly accepted defeat and the end of his season; before he embraced Gregg Popovich and graciously told the victorious coach, "Continue to be great"; before he lingered to salute several court-side fans firsthand and then throw his warm-up jersey into the cheaper seats as a souvenir…
James Harden had a flash of his old lack of discipline.
A fan in the third row behind the Houston Rockets bench had turned on Harden. The fan stood up, arms out and palms up, to roar negatively and vent his frustration as Harden approached the bench for a timeout with 4:18 to play and the San Antonio Spurs leading 108-72 in the decisive Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals on Thursday.
Harden had a little something to say in return. Not much, but enough.
Louder and prouder that he'd gotten his point across personally, the fan ramped it up. Soon Rockets security had the fan escorted out of the arena, and the guy went willingly, having seen enough of Harden anyway.
It was a reminder of just how much falls on Houston's franchise player.
Harden didn't deliver in the biggest game of the season—right after he hadn't delivered late in the previous game, a letdown that could be viewed as an even bigger failure. And whether it was more fatigue from a long, burdensome season or more complacency from knowing San Antonio MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard was out with an injury, it was Harden's lack of discipline and execution that did the Rockets in as their season ended in a 114-75 loss to the Spurs.
He came so far in those areas this season. Yet to reach the championship level, you must have much more. The NBA playoffs demand discipline and execution from teams, and this series was a reminder the Rockets don't have enough of either quality.
They don't have off-the-charts talent, either, but neither do the Spurs. What San Antonio does have is Popovich, who ensures his team will maintain focus amid playoff adversity when it feels like you're dribbling on an earthquake-rocking floor and you're shooting wearing a pair of those hypnotic swirly glasses.
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni's gift is encouraging guys to play freely, which made Houston and Harden better than anyone expected this season. But the NBA playoffs are not about freedom.
In part, the postseason is about pressure. And the Rockets felt it Thursday, absolutely—the pressure of being at home, the pressure of facing elimination, the pressure of everyone expecting them to win with Leonard out.
The D'Antoni system works when things come easily. When things get more difficult, you need to have enough discipline and execution to do what you do best.
"You've got to keep your composure throughout the whole way," Rockets guard Eric Gordon said after the game. "The Spurs, you could just tell no matter who is out, you just can't lose your composure. We just didn't play as well; we didn't have a flow going. When we don't have a flow, we don't play our type of game."
It's no coincidence D'Antoni is 6-20 as a playoff coach against Popovich (although 32-38 in the playoffs isn't too great, either). D'Antoni is now 0-5 in playoff series against Popovich, and he pinpointed one of the reasons for that disparity right before Game 6.
"Discipline not to foul," D'Antoni said in praising his adversary for getting his defenders to be aggressive with their feet and bodies but not their hands. "That's huge. That's why they're always every year a championship-caliber team: discipline."
D'Antoni had said it a few days earlier, too. He cited it as the one aspect of Popovich's coaching he most admires.
"He gets 'em to be very disciplined," D'Antoni said. "It must be the military background."
The easygoing, aw-shucks D'Antoni can only be who he is, and if your coach's strength is not giving your team discipline, then your team must get it somewhere else.
The only other logical source is from your superstar.
Harden has matured. Stories abounded in NBA circles in previous years about how often Harden would be at nightclubs or outright uncommunicative with teammates. He has tried to be better, and he has been—especially this season without Dwight Howard's clownish behavior bringing the Rockets down.
But there's still more to ask of him, fair or not.
Maybe he needs another co-star who is innately hard-driving. A classic comparison would be Paul Pierce getting serious about winning in Boston…but also having the more vocal yet disciplined Kevin Garnett to push the team in a way that players' coach Doc Rivers did not.
Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley bring fire, and Harden definitely made strides finding his voice as a leader this season. Except the stunning flatness of Houston's performance Thursday drove home the point that the dream pairing of D'Antoni's offense and Harden's skill needs more discipline to go farther than D'Antoni's offense and Steve Nash's skill did in Phoenix.
Bear in mind that Nash was more of a lead-by-example guy who flourished with the freedom D'Antoni granted him. In New York, it was D'Antoni who didn't want a power struggle with Carmelo Anthony and just quit the Knicks. And in L.A., D'Antoni was the one who would look behind and find Kobe Bryant checking himself into the game and just nod agreeably.
Like it or not, it's going to be on Harden and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to fill the discipline void while obviously trying to upgrade the talent. It's no easy task, as that Rockets fan piling on Harden at his most humbling moment made abundantly clear.
There is duty, though, that comes with the attention-grabbing beard, the endorsements, the corner stall twice as wide as any other in the Rockets locker room.
Harden knows it.
While he initially said "I don't know what it was" when asked to explain such a flop of a final performance, Harden knowingly added: "Everything falls on my shoulders. I take responsibility for it at both ends of the floor. It's tough."
It's also true he needs some help.
"I really just didn't have rhythm from the beginning of the game," Harden continued. "I felt like I was making some passes and we just didn't knock down shots, or whatever the case may be. But as a team, as a unit, we really didn't have a rhythm, and they capitalized on that."
In other words, maybe he wasn't aggressive enough in going for his own offense early, but it was an overall lack of attention to detail by his team that ultimately sank the Rockets. That might be expected on the defensive side of the ball of a D'Antoni-Harden team (although Harden has been trying much harder on defense lately while asked to defend bigger players), but for a D'Antoni-Harden offense to fall out of sorts is stunning.
It would be remiss to not at least ask if fatigue was a factor. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with how Harden wanted to play every game this season, but it's the job of the coach, especially in today's NBA, to put a foot down and decide if rest is necessary. Case in point: Popovich acknowledged that Leonard flat-out wanted to play Thursday. Pop said no.
One of the two had the discipline to have a plan, and even if the Spurs had lost Thursday, Leonard would've benefitted with two more days to rest his ankle sprain before Game 7 in San Antonio on Sunday.
Obviously, Popovich's team was so well-prepared to execute without Leonard (both down the stretch of Game 5 and throughout Game 6) that one wonders if resting key players throughout the regular season prepared the Spurs to take care of business in such a stunning way without Leonard in the playoffs.
So surprising was the manner in which Game 6 played out, given the 10 points, seven assists, three rebounds, one steal and six turnovers Harden put up, that it is difficult to remember that Harden still finished a possible MVP season by averaging 28.5 points, 8.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals in the playoffs.
In NBA history, the only other player to average at least 28.0 points, 8.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals (steals became an official stat in 1973-74) in a single postseason with at least six games played was Michael Jordan in 1990-91.
No one will remember Harden's smooth moves, though.
The crescendo of this series? San Antonio's discipline burying Houston's freedom.
The Spurs will now try to do that to Golden State. Alas, the Warriors have far more talent and discipline than the Rockets.
As fun of a season as it was for Houston, when the music stops, you realize you can't just dance to whatever sounds you hear.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.