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Houston Rockets: Destroying the myth of James Harden as a playoff choker

By Anthony Duckett
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The all-too popular narrative regarding Houston Rockets superstar James Harden is that he chokes in the playoffs. Here’s why that couldn’t be further from the truth!

Anyone who follows basketball knows that the Houston Rockets superstar has drawn the label of a playoff choker, which is interesting, as James Harden was the most clutch player in the NBA during the 2018-2019 season. It seems incredibly irresponsible to throw the choker label on the most clutch player in the league, regardless of whether the subject is on the regular season or the playoffs.

But even if the topic at hand is on the postseason, it’s also erroneous to label Harden a choker, as the numbers say otherwise. Harden has never finished outside of the top two players in scoring in any of the thirteen playoff series he’s played in with the Rockets. In fact, he’s been the leading scorer in seven of the playoff series he’s played in and finished second in the other six series. The fact that the Rockets have only been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs once in the last five years has a lot to do with Harden and his high level of play during the playoffs.

In addition, there really isn’t a significant drop off in Harden’s regular season numbers and his postseason averages during his tenure with the Rockets, as he averages 29 points per game during the regular season on 44.3 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from deep. In addition, Harden averages 7.7 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game during the regular season along with 4.4 turnovers per game. During the postseason, Harden averages 28.2 points per game, 7 assists and 5.2 rebounds, in addition to 4.5 turnovers per game. Harden’s points, assists, and turnovers are all essentially the same during the regular season and the postseason.

The shooting efficiency does slip, as he averages 41.2 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from deep, but he actually shoots more so it’s natural for his efficiency to slip. During the regular season, Harden averages 19.3 field goal attempts and 8.6 3-point attempts, whereas in the postseason he averages 20.7 field goal attempts and 9.2 3-point attempts. The law of averages would indicate that naturally the more he shoots, the lower his percentage would be, but there is a slight dip in efficiency nonetheless. It’s normal for many players to shoot a lower percentage in the postseason however, so it’s not just Harden.

But as usual, there are Harden detractors who will always ignore facts and basketball science, so it’s worth taking a look back into each individual postseason Harden has been a part of as a member of the Houston Rockets. Let’s get started!

Next: 2013 Playoffs

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

2012-2013 Playoff series against Oklahoma City Thunder

During the 2012-2013 playoffs, which were Harden’s first with the Rockets, he faced off against his former Oklahoma City Thunder team, and his good friends Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. During that season, the Rockets had the eighth seed in the Western Conference and the Thunder were the top seed in the West. The Rockets took OKC to six games, and Harden averaged 26.3 points per game, which was the second best of the entire series behind Durant. In addition, he had an average of 40.5 minutes per game, which was also second to only Durant.

With the Rockets facing elimination in Game 4 of the series, Harden had a game high five steals. In addition, Harden had a defensive rating of 102 points allowed per 100 possessions, which was a game high. In the following game, which was Game 5, the Rockets also faced elimination as they were down 1-3 heading into the game. Harden’s 31 points were also second best of both teams behind only Durant, and Harden’s seven 3-point field goals were also the most of both teams, as he led the Rockets to a 107-100 series saving win.

The Rockets would go on to lose Game 6, which ended the series against OKC, but Harden had 26 points, which was yet again second best of all players in the game, behind only Durant. In addition, Harden’s four 3-point field goals were more than any Thunder player had in the game.

Next: 2014

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

2014 Playoff Series against Portland Trail Blazers

During Harden’s second full season with the Rockets, the Rockets locked up the fourth seed in the Western Conference and drew a first round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers. During the series, Harden finished with 26.8 points per game, which was only second behind LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Rockets found themselves facing elimination heading into Game 5, as they were down 1-3 after the first four games. During that game, Harden had seven assists, which was tied for the most of any player during that game. In addition, Harden had three steals, which led all Rockets. More importantly, Harden scored eight of the Rockets’ final ten points to close out the game and helped the Rockets extend the series to Game 6. Harden left his impact on the game despite only having 17 points in the game.

The Rockets were able to advance to Game 6 of the series but were ultimately defeated by Damian Lillard’s walk-off 3-pointer in the waning seconds of the game. In that game, Harden had 34 points and four steals, which were both game highs. In addition, Harden led the Rockets in assists with six.

Next: 2015

Houston Rockets’ James Harden (13) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)
Houston Rockets’ James Harden (13) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

2015 Playoffs

During the playoffs of the 2014-2015 season, the Rockets went the furthest they had ever gone upto that point with Harden, as they eventually made it to the Western Conference Finals.

The Rockets’ faced off against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round and eliminated them in five games. On the series, Harden led all players in scoring and assists, as he posted averages of 28.4 points and 7.8 assists per game. In Dallas’ only victory, Harden had the second most points of all players with 24. During the elimination game, Harden had game highs in points and assists, as he had 28 points and eight assists.

The Rockets advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals and faced off against the Los Angeles Clippers. This series was viewed as one of Harden’s worse playoff performances, yet he still averaged 25.4 points per game, which was second to only Blake Griffin. In addition, he averaged 8.1 assists per game, which was second only to Chris Paul. Harden shot 35.4 percent from deep and came ready to play during Game 5, which was an elimination game for the Rockets.

The Rockets were down 1-3 going into Game 5 but Harden helped the Rockets climb out of that hole. Harden posted a triple-double in Game 5, as he had 26 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds. In Game 6, which was another elimination game as the Rockets were down 2-3, Harden struggled to find his shot, but still led the team in scoring with 23 points, as he found other ways to contribute offensively. Harden went 11 for 11 from the free throw line and tied for the Rockets’ team lead with two steals. This was easily Harden’s worst game of the entire playoffs, as he shot 20 percent from the floor.

In Game 7 of the series, Harden led all players with 31 points and added eight assists, which was second to only Chris Paul. Harden struggled with his jump shot, as he shot 35 percent from the field, but again found ways to make up for it, as he shot 15-for-18 from the free throw line. The Rockets would advance to the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

In the Conference Finals, the Rockets were eliminated by the Dubs within five games. However, Harden averaged 28.4 points per game, second only to Stephen Curry and averaged a series-leading 6.4 assists. To that point, Harden went tit-for-tat with Curry, as he shot 42.9 percent from deep compared to Curry’s 49.1 percent. In addition, Harden shot 86.8 percent from the free throw line, which was better than Curry’s 80.6 percent from the charity stripe.

In Game 1 of that series, Harden’s 28 points were again second to only Curry. However in Game 2, Harden’s 38 points were a game-high, as Klay Thompson struggled to defend Harden. Despite that, the Warriors still won both games. Game 3 was a similar story, as the Rockets lost despite the fact that Harden tied for the second most points of all players. In addition, he made 10 free throws on 11 attempts, which were both game-highs.

With the Rockets facing a sweep in Game 4, Harden scored 45 points, which was not only a game high but also the most points any player would score in any game of the series. Harden shot a staggering 63.6 percent from downtown and shot 92.3 percent from the charity stripe. The Rockets would live to see another day thanks to Harden’s contributions, but would eventually be eliminated in Game 5.

Next: 2016

Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

2016 Playoff series against the Golden State Warriors

In the 2015-2016 season, the Rockets got off to a 4-7 start on the year, which eventually resulted in the firing of Kevin McHale. The Rockets replaced him with then interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who finished the season with a record of 37-34 and would lift the Rockets into the playoffs despite going 41-41. With the Rockets getting the eighth and final playoff spot, they would face a familiar foe in the Golden State Warriors, who were the top seed in the Western Conference.

In Game 1, Harden shot 60 percent from downtown and was the game’s second leading scorer behind only Curry, although the Rockets lost. In Game 2, Harden’s 28 points were also only second to Curry and his 11 assists were a game high, although the Rockets would lose again.

In Game 3, Harden had 35 points and nine assists, which both were game highs. In addition, Harden hit the game-winning shot with three seconds left to give the Rockets the win. Harden had a double-double in the following game while also grabbing a team high seven steals, although the Rockets still fell to the Dubs in Game 4.

With the Rockets facing elimination, Harden had a game high 35 points, which weren’t enough as the Rockets ended up falling to the Dubs 1-4. On the series, Harden averaged 26.6 points and 7.6 assists, which both led all players. In addition, Harden averaged 2.4 steals, which only trailed Trevor Ariza in the series.

Next: 2017

James Harden #13 (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
James Harden #13 (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

2017 Playoffs

The Rockets looked much different during the 2016-2017 season, as they were without Kevin McHale or any of his coaching staff for the first time in five years. In addition, the Rockets lost center Dwight Howard and didn’t bring in a star to replace him, so the Rockets were expected to miss the playoffs. However, Houston signed Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon while naming Mike D’Antoni the head coach, three moves that paid off the next season.

The Rockets over-achieved as they finished with the third seed in the Western Conference and won 55 games, due in large part to Harden’s 29.1 points per game, which was second in the league. Harden led the league in assists as well, averaging 11.2 per game. Harden would eventually finish second to Russell Westbrook in the MVP race as well and would have won it were it not for Westbrook being the first to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson during the 1961-1962 season.

Interestingly enough, the Rockets faced off against the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. Harden averaged 33.2 points and seven assists, which were both second behind only Westbrook. During Game 1 of the series, Harden had 37 points and nine assists, which were both game highs, as the Rockets cruised to a victory. During Game 2, Harden had 35 points, which were second to only Westbrook, and Harden scored seven of the Rockets’ final 15 points in the fourth quarter, as the Rockets squeezed out a 115-111 victory.

During Game 3, Harden scored 44 points and shot 18-for-18 from the free throw line, which were both were game highs. Harden scored the Rockets’ final 10 points in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough as OKC took home the win. The Rockets won the next two games to close out the series, as Harden had 34 points in the Rockets’ close out game. Harden finished second only to Westbrook ,although he struggled from the field. He did find other ways to score, as he got to the free throw line 17 times and made 16 of his free throws.

The Rockets advanced to the next round against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals. Most Harden detractors point to this series as proof of his status of being a playoff choker, yet Harden averaged 24.5 points and 9.7 assists per game, leading both teams in those categories. During Game 1, Harden had 20 points and 14 assists, joining LaMarcus Aldridge as the only players to post a double-double in the game, and the Rockets took home an easy 126-99 victory. During Game 2, Harden yet again had a double-double but he struggled from the field. The Rockets were down 55-65 at the half, but Harden’s 10 points in the third quarter helped the Rockets pull within five, as they narrowed the deficit down to 83-88. The Rockets ended up losing in a major way however, as the final score was 96-121.

During Game 3, Harden had a game high 43 points and shot 38.5 percent from deep in addition to shooting 90.9 percent from the free throw line, as the Spurs were unable to stop him. Although Harden scored 16 of the Rockets’ final 26 fourth quarter points, the Rockets fell to the Spurs 103-92.

During Game 4, Harden had 28 points and 12 assists, which were both game-highs as the Rockets won 125-104. During Game 5, Harden had a triple-double as he scored 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, becoming the only player in the series to record a triple double. It wasn’t enough, however, as the Rockets lost in overtime. With the Rockets facing elimination in Game 6, they came out flat. Even the biggest Harden super fan would have to admit that this was a poor showing, as he struggled to get going offensively. His seven assists tied for the game high but the Rockets were demolished on their own home floor.

Next: 2018

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors defends James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors defends James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

2018 Playoffs

The Rockets added Chris Paul in the offseason following the 2016-2017 season, and were able to silence all doubters who thought the experiment wouldn’t work. The Rockets won a league best 65 games and finished with the top seed in the West. In addition, Harden’s 30.4 points per game led the league that season, as Harden was able to finally take home the MVP award.

During the first round of the playoffs, the Rockets faced off against the Minnesota Timberwolves and defeated them within five games. On the series, Harden averaged 29 points and 7.4 assists per game, which both led all players. During Game 1, Harden had 44 points while shooting 58.3 percent from three, which were enough to lift the Rockets to a 104-101 victory. Harden had 13 of the Rockets’ final 17 points in the fourth quarter, which made all the difference in a game the Rockets barely pulled away in.

The Rockets would win Game 2, but fell in Minnesota during Game 3, despite Harden’s game-leading 29 points. During Game 4, Harden’s 36 points and five 3-pointers were both game highs, and led the Rockets to a 119-100 win, which gave them a 3-1 lead. Game 5 was a close out game for the Rockets, and Harden had 24 points, out scoring every player except Clint Capela. In addition, Harden had a double-double, as he had 12 assists, which were a game-high. Harden’s four 3-point field goals were also a game high.

The Rockets would advance to face the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semifinals, and Harden led the series in scoring and assists, with 28 points and 7.4 assists. The Jazz are known to be one of the better defensive teams, as coach Quin Snyder is one of the better coaches due to his focus and emphasis on defense. Despite that, during Game 1, Harden had 41 points and seven 3-pointers, as the Jazz were unable to stop him. The Rockets took Game 1, thanks in large part to Harden’s dominance.

The Jazz came back with a vengeance in Game 2, as they pulled out a victory in Houston, Harden had a game-high 32 points and 11 assists, which tied Donovan Mitchell for the most assists. During Game 3, Harden had yet another double-double, as he posted 25 points and 12 assists, which were also each game highs. In addition, the Rockets pulled out the victory to take the series lead 2-1. The Rockets would win the next two games and advance to the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, who had become a familiar foe.

In Game 1 of the series, Harden scored a game-high 41 points and shot 55.6 percent from deep, which were the best amongst all starters. It proved to not be enough, however, as the Rockets still lost. During Game 2, Harden had a double-double as he had 27 points and 10 rebounds, becoming the only player to post a double-double in the game. Harden’s 10 rebounds were a game high as well, and led the Rockets to a 127-105 victory.

The Rockets would lose Game 3 but would pull out Game 4 to tie the series and make up for their home loss in Game 1. During that game, Harden’s 30 points and 33.8 percent usage rate were game highs, and the Rockets were able to tie up the series. During Game 5, Harden struggled from the field, as he was held to 19 points, but he had the highest usage rate of the game. Despite this, the Rockets were able to take the lead for the series and go up 3-2. Unfortunately this would prove to be the last game the Rockets would win as they lost CP3 to a hamstring injury.

Despite that, Harden came ready to play in Game 6, as he had 32 points, nine assists and three steals. With the Rockets facing elimination in Game 7, Harden had 32 points, which was second behind only Durant. Despite missing 11 treys, Harden still shot 41.4 percent from the field, which is far from efficient, but not bad considering how many triples he missed. The Rockets would have likely won the series against the Dubs if Paul were healthy, so it’s quite unfair that any criticism was aimed at Harden. Harden’s averages of 28.7 points and six assists were both second best on the series.

Next: 2019

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

2019 Playoffs

The Rockets got off to a tough start in the 2018-2019 season, as they won just 11 of their first 25 games and were outside of the playoff picture. However, the Rockets closed the season out 20-4 after the All-Star break, due in large part to Harden’s “unguardable tour”. This catapulted them to the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoff race, as they finished with a 53-29 record.

The Rockets faced off against the Utah Jazz in the first round, who had become a familiar opponent for the Rockets. On the series, Harden’s 27.8 points led all players in scoring. In Game 1, Harden was one of only three players to have a double-double, as he posted a game high 29 points and 10 assists. The Rockets steam-rolled the Jazz 122-90 in the series opener.

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In Game 2, Harden had 32 points, 10 assists and 13 rebounds, becoming the only player in the game to post a triple-double. Harden nailed six treys and shot 46.2 percent from deep, as the Rockets would win 118-98. In Game 3, Harden posted 22 points and 10 assists, becoming one of three Rockets to post a double-double. Harden’s 10 assists were a game high as well, and Harden scored 14 of the Rockets’ final 22 points, which made all the difference in the Rockets winning 104-101. With the Rockets seeking to close out the series and sweep the Jazz in Game 4, Harden had 30 points, which was the second most in the game and his six 3-pointers were a game-high. Despite this, the Jazz put up a fight and won the game. The Rockets closed the series out in Game 5, as Harden had a game-high 26 points. The Rockets would advance to face the Golden State Warriors in the Conference Semifinals.

Harden’s 34.8 points led all players in scoring on the series and his 35 points in Game 1 tied Kevin Durant for the game-high, but it wasn’t enough as the Rockets lost in overtime. Harden shot 13 for 14 from the charity stripe, which was good for 92.9 percent.

The Rockets would lose Game 2 as well, despite Harden’s 29 points, which were tied with Durant for the game-high yet again. Harden was very efficient, as he shot 47.4 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep. In Game 3, Harden had 41 points, which was second to only Durant again, and had seven of the Rockets’ final nine points in overtime, which lifted the Rockets to a 126-121 victory.

In Game 4, Harden had a game-high 38 points and 10 rebounds, becoming one of only three players in the game to post a double-double. Harden’s six 3-pointers were a game high, and helped the Rockets tie the series up 2-2.

In Game 5, Harden had a game-high 31 points on a ridiculously efficient 62.5 percent from the field, but it wasn’t enough as the Rockets lost 104-99. With the Rockets facing elimination in Game 6, Harden had a game-high 35 points, as he made six treys on 40 percent from deep. Harden had 12 of the Rockets’ final 20 points, but the Rockets were eliminated yet again from the postseason by the Dubs.

Next. Player grades from the Houston Rockets’ 117-111 loss to Milwaukee

On that series, Harden shot 44.3 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from deep. To put that into perspective, Stephen Curry, who is the league’s media darling, shot 40.3 percent from the field and a mere 27.9 percent from deep. Yet, the media’s narrative after the series was that Harden choked and Curry rose to the occasion, even though the numbers tell a different story.

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