James Harden did not score in the final five minutes of the Houston Rockets’ 117-107 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday. He shot 0-of-3 from three-point range, did not record an assist, turned the ball over once, and watched idly as Portland extended a two-point lead with 5:17 remaining into a 10-point victory.
The Trail Blazers are not the Golden State Warriors. They do not have the defensive strategies in place nor the requisite personnel to shut down the NBA’s second-most potent scorer. But as great as Harden has been this season, he has iced himself out of several games in crunch time.
The numbers prove it.
In the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a differential of five points or fewer, Harden, the NBA’s leading assist man, averages just half an assist. Russell Westbrook averages 0.7, and Chris Paul averages 0.8.
Harden has the fourth-worst field-goal percentage of all qualifying players during this time period, behind only Damian Lillard, Nikola Vucevic, and Chris Paul. He is shooting just 36 percent from the field and 27 percent from three.
But even the Trail Blazers, Magic, and Clippers manage to stay afloat when their top crunch time scorers go cold. Not the Rockets.
The Rockets are outscored by 0.5 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor in the final five minutes of games within a five-point margin, according to data from NBA.com. For context, the Thunder outscore opponents by 2.4 points per 100 possessions with Russell Westbrook on the floor in crunch time, the Spurs by 2.1 with Kawhi Leonard, and the Cavaliers by 1.5 with LeBron James.
The Pelicans (DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis), Pacers (Paul George), Hornets (Kemba Walker), and Knicks (Carmelo Anthony) are the only other teams to be outscored with an All-Star on the floor and the game on the line. Only one of those other four teams is in the playoffs, and Indiana is a game away from falling from the club.
Harden is also in the bottom 15 of all starting guards in opponent points allowed off turnovers in crunch time.
Harden’s clutch struggles aren’t unique to this year
Earlier this season, the Rockets edged out the Warriors in a close game that raged into double overtime. Harden scored 39 points in a mammoth triple-double effort but did not record a field goal from the 6:29 mark in the third quarter until the 3:30 mark in double overtime.
On a critical possession during the same game, Harden didn’t get the ball. It doesn’t look like the play was drawn up for the league’s most feared isolation scorer. That can’t happen. Not if the Rockets want to compete for a championship.
His late-game woes have trickled over from seasons past.
Last season, Harden was the 13th worst shooter in the league among guards in late-game scenarios. He made just 35 percent of his shots from the field and 26 percent from downtown, according to data from NBA.com. It was only by sheer volume of attempts that his 3.5 points in crunch time were sixth-most in the NBA.
In the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden came up just 4-of-20 from the field and 1-of-9 from three with six turnovers and nine fouls in Oklahoma City’s series-swinging Game 3 and 4 losses to the Miami Heat.
In Games 5 and 6 of Houston’s 2014 first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Harden combined for 45 points on 14-of-47 (.297) shooting from the field. That series ended like this:
And in the 2015 Western Conference Finals against Golden State, Harden shot just 5-of-27 (.185) in critical Games 3 and 5.
The Rockets need Harden to ice games to make a deep playoff run
Houston didn’t get here on its own. Yes, Mike D’Antoni masterfully implemented his Seven Seconds or Less offensive philosophy with a bevy of snipers flanking the perimeter. But without the maestro, there is no show.
Harden orchestrates the offense to a tee because his one-on-one game forces defenses to make a decision: Help or leave a shooter open. It’s a dangerous situation for an opposing coach to be put in.
But that hasn’t always held true in a close game late in the fourth or in overtime. Harden’s biggest strength is his ability to reduce grown men to a fraudulent pair of ankles. Only the few and the proud contain him when heading the rack.
But sometimes Harden becomes overly reliant on the three-pointer—a shot he’s never converted above a 37.5 percent clip. He becomes complacent with getting threes up in crunch time, veering from the rack-attacking script that’s gotten him this far this season.
Many times, he defers to his snipers, heaping the burden of pressure shots on his teammates. Yes, he has the best supplementary shooters in the world in Houston. But deferring elsewhere, he often gets lost in his options and takes his foot off the gas.
Lou Williams had no clue that Harden was looking for him on this play:
Trevor Ariza can’t be thrilled that Harden slung him the ball with two on the shot clock:
Sometimes, things just don’t go Harden’s way:
We want to say Harden will find the fourth-quarter gear to push Houston to a Western Conference Finals appearance or even beyond, but there isn’t much precedent for that. As dominant as he’s been throughout games, Harden doesn’t have many signature moments to close out teams.
There are some exceptions. He went coast-to-coast for a game-winner against the Denver Nuggets in late March, a game where Harden willed the Rockets with 11 points in the final five minutes. But his last game-winning buzzer-beater was against the Phoenix Suns last season — and his shot was defended by Isaiah Thomas.
If Harden can’t duplicate his exploits from the first 45 minutes to lead his team in the final three, the Rockets could be gone fishing sooner than many thought.