James Harden took his first shot almost 18 minutes into Game 6, an elimination game at home for the Rockets. That’s midway through the second quarter. Harden’s one of the most prodigious scorers in the league, and yet he waited until his opponent had a 21-point lead to interject. Part of the revelation of the 2016–17 Houston Rockets has been watching Harden excel at playmaker, acting as the catalyst for the storm of 3s that Houston so frequently dropped on other teams. Still, part of his playmaking included taking early shots to get his team going — attracting double-teams to get his hot-shooting teammates open. James Harden shoots. That is what he does.
Except for in Game 6. He finished the 114–75 loss Thursday night shooting 2-of-11 for 10 points to go with seven assists. He attempted only two field goals in the first half and he fouled out with 3:15 remaining in the fourth quarter. The win was sealed by that point, but Harden never showed up, anyway. His performance was so starkly different from his typical style that it’s impossible not to wonder if he has a severe injury, and it’s a question that he and Mike D’Antoni faced in his postgame press conference. Both insist the Beard is just fine, though. Neither offered up explanations or excuses, so we’re left with a lowlight reel of all the times Harden decided to pass when he could have taken a shot.
The heated MVP race among Harden, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook feels like a distant memory now, and Harden’s best season to date will be remembered with an asterisk. Maybe there’s extreme recency bias — that which comes within an hour of an event ending — but how can Harden’s 2016–17 season end on the same level as the other three players’? Russ’s last game ended with him taking an infuriating number of shots, preceded a few days before by a fight with a member of the media. James’s team has gone 8–0 so far. Leonard’s MVP case took a hit with his team succeeding without him, but he also carried the Spurs to several wins this postseason. Meanwhile, with the season on the line, Harden tried his hardest to not fill the stat sheet, removed himself from the game before the last whistle, and fled his last presser as quickly as possible. He can’t be blamed for any reluctance to dissect his worst game in recent memory, but the rest is inexplicable without injury.
D’Antoni has a history of helping to birth NBA legends. The legacy of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns hangs over the modern NBA conspicuously, and there’s an entire generation of fans and players who worship at the altar of Steve Nash. Nash is accepted as among the best point guards of all time, but his status as a cult hero is even stronger. He represents a moment and a way of thinking about basketball. After Harden’s Game 6 performance, that may be the most he can hope for. We may look back at how a shooting guard revolution began in Texas with an incredible scorer, but at least for now, his utter no-show will be the main topic. He just excused himself from the 2017 MVP conversation (even though voting took place last month), and his place among the current superstars is up for debate. The Rockets pushed the basketball conversation all season. And with their last game, I’m wondering what it means to be a star.