Houston Rockets moment #7: Is that Harden or Hakeem?
When one thinks about James Harden’s game, many things come to mind; his incredible isolation play, his elite handles, his ability to draw fouls, and his patented step-back are just some. Blocking, however, is not what pops into most people’s heads when they think of The Beard.
Yet that is exactly what Harden did in what is probably the most clutch individual moment of his playoff tenure in Houston. There is no isolated play in Harden’s playoff career with the Rockets that had a more direct and consequential impact on the team’s playoff result than this one.
To set the stage, the Rockets were pitted up against one of their classic rivals in the modern era, the Oklahoma City Thunder. To make things even more favorable with the gods of irony, this playoff matchup occurred in the very season that Chris Paul was traded by the Rockets to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook, one of the more unpredictable trades in franchise history.
The Rockets had traded Paul believing him to be regressing as a player in his old age. They believed that Westbrook was the superior option to go with from a talent perspective and that having two former MVPs on the team would make them a legitimate title contender.
As it turned out, Paul had an amazing season with the Oklahoma City Thunder while Westbrook’s season with the Rockets was a mixed bag. If the Rockets were to lose to Paul’s Thunder in the first round of the playoffs after making the trade they made, the franchise would have never been allowed to live it down.
With so much of their reputation on the line, the Rockets found themselves in a scary position. They allowed the series to reach a Game 7 and Lu Dort, who had shot terribly from the 3-point line up to this point, to become Steph Curry from behind the arc.
The narrative with Lu Dort did not stop there either, as he was playing fantastic defense on Harden, who was struggling all night offensively. With the Rockets only up by one, a fraction of a second separating the game and shot clock at the end of the fourth quarter, the most clutch player of the season in Chris Paul leading the way, and the ball certain to make its way to Lu Dort, to call this game a nail-biter for Rockets fans is a massive understatement.
After nearly turning the ball over, the Thunder managed to get the ball over to Dort for what would surely have been a dagger three to seal the game for them. But in a maneuver truly reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwon’s game-saving block on John Starks in the 1994 NBA Finals, Harden sprinted to Dort, extended his hand, and tipped the ball enough to send it straight up in the air.
Desperate at this point, Dort grabbed his own blocked shot and threw the ball at Harden, who was out of bounds, in an effort to keep the ball in Oklahoma CIty’s possession for one last-ditch effort at scoring. The veteran All-Star Harden was all too familiar with this move however, and spread his legs mid-air so that the ball would not touch him.
After some meddling from the referees and free throws from both teams, the Rockets would walk away from this game with the series firmly won. This moment stands out from Harden’s other playoff moments with the Rockets in a few ways.
Firstly, this entire story leading up to this game and this final play is of far more narrative weight than his other postseason plays. Second and most importantly, this play not only directly resulted in the Rockets winning the game, it directly resulted in them winning the series, a series that had gone seven games and was fought tooth and nail to the climactic end.
In this truly special and highly clutch moment of Harden’s time in Houston, the arguable second-greatest player to ever suit up in Houston Rockets Red looked quite a bit like the greatest player in franchise history.
Next: No. 6