Harden's MVP pursuit puts Rockets in tough spot

OAKLAND — Every year, there’s a different version of this same story.

As the NBA’s elite teams gear up for the postseason, there’s an individual award hanging in the balance or a team-wide regular-season record to chase that, in the end, matters far less than the prospect of winning a championship. And so it goes at the moment for the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, who has a left wrist injury that is clearly affecting his play yet is forging on in pursuit of more wins and the MVP award that he clearly doesn’t want to see the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook rip from his grips.

But here’s the thing about Harden’s against-the-grain stance in today’s era of rest-and-recovery: with the Rockets widely seen as the kind of darkhorse title contender that could win it all if everything went their way, the price that he and they might pay for this come playoff time is simply too high to risk it anymore. Especially when Houston (51-25) is all but guaranteed to be the third seed (with six games to go, they’re 7 ½ games behind No. 2 San Antonio and four ahead of No. 4 Utah), and when it’s so obvious that Harden isn’t himself right now.

Harden needs to take a game or two off here.

The latest proof was tough to ignore, as he shot just four of 18 overall and two of nine from three-point range in the Rockets’ 107-98 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on Friday and thus suffered their first three-game losing streak of the season. The before and after numbers, meanwhile, only grew farther apart.

Harden’s production in the 70 games before the injury, which he suffered on March 18 against Denver and reinjured on Sunday against the Thunder:

29.2 points per game (44.6% shooting overall, 35.2% from three-point range, 84.9% from the free-throw line), 11.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds with a plus-minus mark of plus-5.9.

The six games since the initial injury:

28.3 points (39%, 25.8%, 88.9%), 10.8 assists, 7.6 rebounds per game with a plus-minus rating of minus-0.2.

More than anything, it’s that three-point shooting drop-off (a 9.4% dip) that makes you wonder when the wrist will start flicking the right way again. But because Harden has been told by the team’s training staff that the injury should heal even as he plays, and because coach Mike D’Antoni is smart enough to know that forcing Harden to sit would be the wrong move when it comes to the dynamics of their so-far-seamless partnership, he plays on.

After all, the Rockets’ dynamic duo didn’t get to this point by pulling power plays. Harden trusted D’Antoni back in the summertime, when he told him that a move from shooting guard to point guard would unleash his game like never before. They’d shoot threes like no team ever had, relying on an even more extreme version of the D’Antoni offense that changed the game during his storied Phoenix Suns days. And here the Rockets are, already 10 games improved from last season and — at their best — fully capable of running with anyone.

In the Rockets’ eyes, and so long as the medical experts don’t step in to say he’s putting himself in harm’s way, they’re leaving the decision on whether to play up to Harden. Yet rest assured, as he made clear in a chat with USA TODAY Sports, none of the recent struggles assure that rest is coming anytime soon.

“(Rest) for what?,” he said with a confused look when asked about possibly sitting anytime soon. “It’s messing with my rhythm a little bit, not just tonight but the last week or so. But I’ll be alright. It’s a little (frustrating). I’ll be alright. I’m strong enough.

“In life, there’s going to be some adversity. Things aren’t always going to go your way. It’s one of those points, and I’ve just got to figure out a way to fight through it. I think that’s what makes a man stronger and tougher.”

When asked if it was painful, Harden said, “Yeah, but what’s that?”

But as was the case midway through the third quarter, when the Warriors’ Draymond Green punched down on Harden’s ailing wrist after what he said afterward was an “adolescent” pinch of his midsection, playing through pain also means exposing yourself to the possibility of even more abuse. And therein lies the quandary for D’Antoni, who is well aware the Rockets need Harden at his absolute best for the next two months if they’re going to pull off the unexpected here.

“He really, really wants to play,” D’Antoni told USA TODAY Sports before the game. “So I talk to the doctors, talk to the trainers, talk to James, sit in a room and figure it out ... I don’t know his body. I’ve never been (in this situation) before, and I really leave it up to trainers and James. And whatever he wants to do, I’m ok with.

“He loves to play, and he thinks he owes it to the people to play, and I think it’s remarkable. I think it’s great. Now we’ll watch, as we get a little closer, as we get to the last two or three games we’ll have a week before, so maybe we can do something (regarding rest) then, but we’ll make sure he’s ready to go when we open up the playoffs. But again, I trust him, I trust the medical staff.”

Until then, D’Antoni will keep doing what he’s been doing every day of late. Ask Harden how he feels, and hope against hope that there aren’t regrets by season’s end.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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