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James Harden is one of the greatest scorers ever. Playoff knockouts won’t change that

The Beard is only getting better.

James Harden celebrates for Houston.
James Harden’s numbers are getting bigger and bigger.

James Harden is having yet another moment, and thus so is James Harden skepticism. We can’t have one without the other.

Harden is averaging a shade under 40 points per game on 61 percent true shooting percentage. This is basically impossible as only one player in history has scored even 35 points per game with a true shooting percentage above 60 percent: James Harden, last year. The next highest is Michael Jordan at 56 percent.

Houston has won seven straight games. Here are Harden’s point totals in those seven games: 44, 36, 42, 39, 47, 44, 49. The Rockets are No. 2 in the West, behind only the LA Lakers. They are 7-0 against the West, including a big win last week over the Clippers. There’s been nary a peep about Russell Westbrook’s fit alongside Harden because Harden is playing at such a high level scoring the ball that there’s no oxygen for peeps about anything else.

Every time Harden goes on some type of screaming streak of scoring excellence, skeptics come out and assert that Harden’s mystique is valid only during the regular season, that his game is pretty to look at in regular five-second doses from October through March but loses its power in the spring.

It is true that historically, Harden’s scoring and efficiency drop substantially in the playoffs. In the 2016, 2017, and 2018 postseasons, he shot well below his standard from the field and especially on threes. His playmaking usually dips too, as defenses key in specifically on him in a way they do not during the regular season. In 2015, when the Rockets went to the Western Conference Finals with Harden and Dwight Howard, The Beard was excellent in the playoffs. He was also quite good last season, though Houston fell short against their tormentors from Golden State.

But context is demanded from this. Not excuses, but context.

First, Harden performing below his regular-season standard is not disaster itself because Harden’s regular-season standard is so incredibly high. B-minus Harden is still in the 98th percentile of NBA scorers! It’s not as if Harden turns into a pumpkin in mid-April: he’s still an absolutely dominant offensive player in the postseason, just not perhaps a historic one on a level with Jordan.

Second, consider what success Harden has had in the tough West despite a flawed, rotating cast of co-stars. He reached the West finals with Dwight Howard as his co-star once, and years later with Chris Paul as his co-star. The only aspect of the Rockets that has really been stable is Harden: the supporting cast is often shifting, now with Westbrook in that No. 2 spot. It’s working fine. Harden’s Rockets have won four playoff series in the last three years. Other than the Warriors, no other West franchise has won more than two playoff series in the last three years. In recent years, the West isn’t really the Warriors and then everyone else. It’s the Warriors, then the Rockets, then everyone else. That’s largely because of Harden’s excellence in both the regular season and the playoffs.

Third, the Warriors that slayed the Rockets are an all-time great team. Like, the second or third greatest core in the modern era. That core ejected the Rockets out of the playoffs in four out of the last five seasons. It’s not like Harden ghosts in the playoffs and, like, the Jazz or Blazers keep knocking Houston out. It’s the Warriors, almost always. (The exception: 2017, when Kawhi Leonard tortured Harden and the Spurs beat the Rockets.) You can’t note that Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and the Warriors are all historically good and then rip Harden for losing to them. Part of Harden’s spring shortcomings stem from the Warriors’ greatness. (And he still nearly overcame them in 2018.)

But the biggest reason not to diminish what Harden does now because he doesn’t have a ring and because he might not win the championship in June is that what he’s doing now absolutely counts. It matters. It’s real. Teams are trying desperately to find a way to stop him, and he’s making them all look like fools. The Clippers have two big, strong, and fast wing defenders in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Maybe they’ll stop him in May. The Lakers have two offensive stars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis that should give the Rockets all sorts of trouble. Maybe that will derail Harden’s spring. Maybe Harden will never get closer to that elusive ring than he did in 2018.

That doesn’t make him any less than one of the greatest scorers we’ve ever seen. Stephen Curry has famously seen a performance dip in the playoffs, specifically in the NBA Finals. That doesn’t diminish his starring role on three championship teams or his status as the best shooter ever (and one of the greatest scorers ever, on par with Harden). At this level of excellence, failures don’t diminish accomplishments. Failures only prevent additional accomplishments.

Harden doesn’t need to accomplish anything more to prove his greatness. Further accomplishments will burnish his record and legacy — perhaps no accomplishment better than a championship. But if he never won another playoff series, that wouldn’t erase what he’s done. That’s not how any of this works.