As James Harden walked off the Toyota Center practice floor last week, his Houston Rockets in a playoff fight with the San Antonio Spurs that would eventually end in embarrassing fashion on Thursday night, the general manager who brought him to town from Oklahoma City back in October 2012 noticed him coughing as he clocked out.
"How long you had that?" Daryl Morey asked his 27-year-old franchise centerpiece about the flu bug that was making it hard to breathe. "Take your mom’s advice. Rest, liquids — all that stuff."
A week later, Harden would go out wheezing again.
Only Harden knows how this happened, how his special season could end with such a shameful goodbye. A Game 5 loss when fellow MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard couldn’t finish the game, missing the end of regulation and overtime after tweaking his left ankle? A Game 6 finale in which they lost by 39 points ... at home ... with Leonard sidelined ... and Tony Parker out ... and Harden coughing up three times as many turnovers as he had made shots?
Stop it. No way. No how.
"I mean, I really just didn’t have a rhythm at the beginning of the game," Harden, who had 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting, with seven assists, three rebounds, six turnovers and a minus-28 rating, told reporters afterward. "I was making some passes, and we just didn’t knock down shots — or whatever the case might be. But as a team, as a unit, we really didn’t have a rhythm, and they capitalized on that.
"It’s frustrating, definitely, especially the way we were resilient all year long and we’ve been fighting through adversity, we’ve been really good at bouncing back. You know, it hurts. It stings. But like I said, we’ve just got to figure a way to get better, and we will. Credit to the Spurs. They had a really good season. They’re a really good team, really well-coached. They were a better team this series."
As if there wasn’t enough evidence of Harden’s struggles — and really, the eyeball test was more than enough — it spoke volumes that even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wasn’t sure what to say to him afterward. He hugged Harden on the floor when it was all over, a sign of respect if ever there was one. But the words, as Harden would reveal, didn’t come easily.
"Honestly, he said he (didn’t) know what to say," Harden said. "He said how great of a year I had, and how great of a year our organization had, and I just told him congratulations. Best of luck next round, and continue to be great.
"We’ve got a whole summer for me to put it behind (me), for us to put it behind us. Get better, all around as a unit, and come back even better for next year."
No one can take away Harden’s magical regular season, of course. After the hiring of coach Mike D’Antoni last summer, he co-signed on the plan to move from shooting guard to point guard and proceeded to turn in the best campaign of his already-impressive career: 29.1 points, a league-leading 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game, a pace matched only by the great Oscar Robertson in the history of the game (he averaged at least 29, 11 and eight twice). The Rockets, who so many accused of hiring a retread coach and injury-prone players last summer when they added Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, found themselves a winning pace-and-space formula that had them finishing the regular season as the NBA’s third-best team (55-21).
But Harden faltered late, not only in those early April weeks when he played through a left wrist injury and saw a steep decline in his efficiency, but in the postseason as a whole. In all, he saw significant declines in shooting percentage (44% overall in the regular season to 41.3% in the playoffs; 34.7% from three-point range to 27.8%), assists (11.2 per game to 8.5), and rebounds (8.1 to 5.5).
Numbers aside, he looked exhausted. The passive play. The sloppy turnovers. The utter lack of fire when their whole season was on the line.
Harden is too smart to not learn from this. He’ll watch the tape. He’ll talk to the coaching staff. He’ll make the kinds of adjustments that, health willing, will have him feeling more fresh and fit by the end of next season.
But season-ending acts don’t get much worse than this in the NBA. Harden, in the end, could never catch his breath.
"You’ve got to take it for what it is," Harden said. "Everything falls on my shoulders. I take responsibility for it, for both ends of the floor. You know, it’s tough, especially the way we lost at home for Game 6, but we move forward.
"It’s frustrating the way we lost, especially (with) how good of a year — with a new coaching staff and new key pieces to our team. It’s pretty good, could’ve been better. We’re in the right direction. We have a lot of improvement to do with the team that we have right now, and so take some time off and get ready (for) camp next season."
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