It was a Game 5, but it wasn’t the NBA finals. It wasn’t Michael Jordan fighting through the flu, but maybe James Harden is not the kind of dude to play up a sickness as MJ strategically would. Harden had every excuse to bow out of the NBA Playoffs with his head held high last night. This was a career-changing season for him as he proved that he is a Top 5 baller in the game. He was second in the NBA in scoring and his offensive game is officially off the charts. Those seven assists per ain’t nothing to sneeze at either. He's come such a long way from being considered underrated and the third leg to KD and Russell Westbrook.
If Houston failed to advance any further in the playoffs, who could blame Harden? He balls his heart out like every day, despite the fact that he has important teammates who only bring it sometimes. In Game 4, they totally abandoned him.
Last night, however, instead of falling back and resting on his laurels, “The Bearded One” proved why he was MVP runner-up and many people's first choice for the coveted accolade. Facing a doe-or-die Game 5 was all the motivation Harden needed to become the tone-setter, game breaker and the triple-double maker as the Rockets live to ball another day. Getting more than single digits and a couple of techs from Dwight Howard (20 points, 15 rebounds) also helped the Rockets' cause and changed the complexion of the series in the process. Chef Curry hasn't had his yet, but Game 5 was Harden's "playoff moment."
In the previous two losses (by a combined total of 58 points) Doc Rivers had the Clippers looking like a well-oiled machine and the defensive efforts of Kevin McHale's Houston team didn't remotely resemble the nasty and relentless playoff posture exhibited by those Celtics Dynasty squads that McHale was such an integral part of during the 80s.
With the regular season success Houston had, supposedly the “best center in the game” manning the middle, along with Harden roaming the perimeter and punishingly penetrating the paint -- to go out 4-1 to the Clippers would have been a sad moment in Rockets history.
It also would have cast some serious (further) doubts about McHale's ability as a coach. Harden didn't let that happen. It wasn't quite Jordan and "The Flu Game" but Harden did receive an IV Tuesday afternoon and his answers to postgame questions were littered with coughs and sniffles. It was obvious that Harden was under the weather and as the heart-n-soul of the Rockets, when he is down, the team is down. Channeling his inner-Jordan, Harden didn't let a cold affect his game.
In fact it was his finest playoff moment to date as he had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists and the Rockets bounced back from two blowouts with a 124-103 victory over LA's Lob City boys. It wasn’t MJ’s 38. It didn’t have an Albert Brother calling play-by-play and capturing the magnitude of the moment as only Marv can do.
Harden didn’t collapse on the bench at every timeout or break in the action to show people how sick he was. He just balled, shot-called and reminded the world that he isn’t just a regular season offensive freak show. He works hard and plays for playoff keeps, just like the legends did.
“I’m all right,” Harden said when asked about his health. “We won, so that’s all that matters.”The Rockets hadn’t lost three straight all season, and Harden would have none of that madness in the WCS. Houston used a 36-point second quarter to take a commanding lead and withstood a third-quarter surge by Los Angeles to coast to victory and put the pressure back on the Clippers to avoid a Game 7 in Harden’s backyard, The Lone Star State.