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James Harden's biggest strength is also his biggest weakness

Harden’s biggest strength is his ability to patiently bend and dissect defenses. But in crunch time, that patience costs him.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs - Game Five Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

For every heroic story, there is a failure of superior and more talented entity. Heroes can only come from overcoming a greater circumstance. And Manu Ginobili’s shining moment in Game 5 came at the expense of James Harden.

Ginobili might have blocked Harden’s last-second shot to tie the game as the cherry on top of his excellent performance, but the flip side was Harden failing to capitalize on several opportunities and coming up short in a way that exposed his greatest weakness.

The numbers prove it: Harden doesn’t play well in crunch time. He’s had moments of clutch play, but also has a longer history of struggling in high-leverage moments in the playoffs and regular season. His 2-of-7, four-turnover performance in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 5 was particularly egregious, but it’s not his first clutch disaster.

Why does Harden struggle in crunch time?

It’s because his weakness is tied to his greatest strength.

Harden is one of the game’s best playmakers and scorers because of his mind. His game is built to pick opponents apart when the defense has to make the often-fatal decision of showing too much attention to a player that can’t really be stopped one-on-one or guarding his army of three-point specialists.

But that method works best when the game has a normal structure to it. When everything breaks down and the game descends into chaos, Harden thinks himself into a corner, dribbling aimlessly while waiting for an opening that never presents itself. It’s as if he’s conducting an orchestra in the middle of a death metal concert, rather than jumping into the mosh pit himself.

After a brilliant first half of Game 5 (23 points, 8 of 13 from the field, eight rebounds, five assists), Harden was off his game thereafter. He took just four field goals and only made one for three points in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter and overtime, he had 10 points, most of which came on free throws. Harden was great when the Rockets were leading the Spurs, but as the game grew tighter and each possession became more critical, he withered.

And it was especially evident in overtime, when both offenses came to a halt. With Kawhi Leonard out, Harden was by far the best player on the court. It should have been his moment.

But rather than displaying his offensive talents and exiling the Spurs into despair, Harden constantly looked up towards the ceiling and shook his head in disbelief as he walked back towards the Rockets’ half of the court. He was surely annoyed with his teammates, but Harden himself was at fault. He thought himself into paralysis.

That became obvious as he dawdled during the many one-on-one opportunities he usually loves. He had Ginobili isolated with less than a minute and a half left in the fourth quarter, and even Reggie Miller was gleeful at the prospect of what Harden could do to the ancient Argentine. “This is the switch you want for James Harden,” Miller bellowed. “39-year-old Ginobili.”

Yet he got nothing out of it.

When Harden realized the screen came too late, he threw his left hand up in frustration and shot a lazy, contested three that came up short. He made no attempt to take advantage of his massive talent advantage.

There was also his offensive foul against Jonathon Simmons on the Rockets’ last possession of regulation. Again, Harden had an advantage on an isolation. Again, he waited for something else to happen. He looked like he was plotting a roundabout way of beating someone he just go past in his sleep. In buying time to find an answer to a problem that already had an easy solution, he ceded the driving angle.

Overtime saw Harden turn the ball over three times, twice because Simmons picked his pocket. Harden was focused on directing his teammates instead of playing what was in front of him. His last consequential action of overtime ended with him dribbling down the shot clock before passing the ball to Eric Gordon to brick a long three.

Why is Harden so indecisive anyway?

Fatigue certainly plays a role. Harden carries a heavy offensive load and took pride in not sitting out games. Maybe that finally caught up to him.

But fatigue only exacerbates a problem that already exists. It makes the body and the mind work slower, which is costly for someone who already spends a lot of time calculating every decision. The more Harden has to ruminate on decisions, the more he gets stuck.

In that sense, he’s comparable to a younger LeBron James and the complete opposite of former teammate Russell Westbrook. When everything is chaotic, Westbrook goes into full hero-ball mode and blasts through holes that don’t exist. Harden, on the other hand, overburdens himself by analyzing and refuting every possible action, as James used to do. By the time Harden looks up, the shot clock is expiring and he has to make a desperate play that’s easy for the defense to stop.

What Harden needs to understand, as LeBron eventually did, is that sometimes it’s necessary to be the bull in a china shop. When the defense slams the door and time is running out, it’s better to put your shoulder down and smash right through rather than anxiously pick the lock. That creates opportunities for both him and his teammates, chances where he can put that brilliant mind to better use than scheming 60 different ways to beat a 39-year-old Ginobili on an isolation.

Harden’s calculating nature serves him well most of the time, but when the game gets tight, it becomes inefficient and paralyzing. Nobody would suggest Harden act brutish like Westbrook, but there’s value in simply taking the initiative. He needs to trust that he’s better than the person guarding him.

Harden is the best player on the court in nearly every game. That should be evident in the most critical times, not only when the circumstances are perfect.