clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

James Harden and the Rockets validate themselves in defeat

Even with a pair of losses, the Rockets and James Harden have shown that they belong in the conference finals.

Pool/Getty Images

As the MVP debate wound to its finish, the focus came down to a choice between Stephen Curry and James Harden. The specific arguments were pretty cut and dry. Curry was by far the best and most important player on a historically-great team, plus one of three most exciting players in the NBA. Harden was the only thing between the No. 2 seed and the lottery for the overachieving Rockets, and he was the most impossible-to-stop scorer in the league.

Curry won out, likely due to that incredible record (67-15), a mark only surpassed five times in NBA history. Just like in the regular season, the Warriors are getting the wins. Now up 2-0, Golden State needs just two victories over the next five games to advance to the NBA Finals.

But the Curry-Harden duel has manifested in the Western Conference Finals exactly how it did in the regular season. Curry's brilliance has led the Warriors, with his electric shooting setting the tone and opening up the floor for his teammates. But he's had a ton of help, even with Klay Thompson struggling. Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes had monster Game 1s; Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green were dominant on both ends in Game 2.

The thing about the Warriors is that their margin for error is huge. Any one major part of the game can go awry and Golden State can still dominate. The Warriors were exceedingly sloppy in the second quarter of Game 2, but because they shoot so well and make opponents work for buckets in the half court, they went into the half tied. A lesser team would be trailing after Harden's blitz and the Warriors' slide into disaster. The Warriors also had a gnarly final few minutes, which included a stunning 8-second violation thanks to Corey Brewer's disruption. This is what Curry helps supply, but also what he gets from the superior team built around him. The Warriors can score just one point in the final 1:40 of the game, give up eight points at the other end ... and still win.

Harden has no such fortune. When he excels, which is very often, the Rockets win. When he slips, the Rockets nosedive. That's what made the Game 6 comeback against the Clippers so stunning: it happened without Harden. When they don't get out in transition, the Rockets have settled into an offense that relies almost exclusively on high pick-and-rolls and Dwight Howard post-ups. When a player other than Harden is running the pick-and-roll -- such as the four-five P&Rs with Josh Smith that crushed the Mavericks and gave L.A. some problems -- Houston is totally manageable for the Warriors defense. Time and again in Game 2, Golden State dared Smith to take the shot; Smith needs little encouragement anyway. He ended up with 10 points on 17 shooting possessions. That's exactly what the Warriors want.

Harden takes stretches off on offense. He'll float on the perimeter a bit, watch the play develop with a drive or a post-up, and do the same the next trip down. The Rockets offense is so mediocre when this happens, but it's also understandable. Harden carries such a load and has to work so hard for his numbers that doing it persistently is unsustainable. No one else in the league outside of Russell Westbrook has carried such a heavy burden in 2015. Eventually, Harden gets the ball and runs his masterful, probing style for a few possessions in a row, almost assuredly getting lots of points out of it.

The margin for error for Harden and the Rockets is much smaller. A few defensive miscues means a Warriors run. Those stretches without the ball in Harden's hands were basically doom for Houston in Game 2. At times, you get that feeling that the Rockets aren't supposed to be here.

That was the case all season, too. You'd look at the standings, look at Howard's streak of DNPs and wonder how long the illusion could last. Then it's the middle of April and Houston is claiming the No. 2 seed in a brutal conference, winning a division that sent all five of its teams to the playoffs. Then it's Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals with 30 seconds left and Houston is down a single bloody point to the 67-win Warriors. This is what Harden and the Rockets have done all year long.

There was a sense that Harden and the Rockets were a shell game, that their threes-and-frees offense is a loophole opened wide and that their defense would crack when the competition improved. The Rockets didn't manage to steal a win in Oakland, but they came so close that it's impossible to believe Houston and Harden aren't real any longer. The Rockets are as legitimate as anyone. Harden deserved the MVP votes he received and then some.

The Golden State faithful chanted "o-ver-rat-ed" at Harden earlier in the series. By the end of Game 2, that sentiment was replaced with relief that Harden finally fouled something up. So much for a Warriors' cakewalk.

SB Nation presents: Keys to the NBA's conference final matchups