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The Rockets’ Fate—in Game 7 and Beyond—Is in James Harden’s Hands

Harden’s legacy, Houston’s postseason, and the futures of Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey, and more all hinge on their superstar’s performance against Chris Paul and the Thunder

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

James Harden was afraid. Russell Westbrook was reckless. Yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s time to stop all the bickering about who’s most at fault for the issues that have plagued the Rockets for years and did again in their Game 6 loss to the Thunder. The truth is, all of the Rockets are at fault. Harden needs to demand the ball like an all-time great scorer should. Westbrook needs to maximize his impact off the ball. Mike D’Antoni can’t hesitate to deviate from the system—a midrange shot late in the fourth could help, as could not switching every screen. It doesn’t matter who or what ranks no. 1 in the Houston Rockets Blame Game Power Rankings. None of these issues can exist if the Rockets ever want to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy during the Harden era, or make it past Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Wednesday’s Game 7.

The only reason CP3 is even playing for OKC is the conflict that arose between him and Harden in Houston. It became a “me or him” scenario, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reported last year. It was an easy choice for Daryl Morey to keep Harden, who is four years younger and only two years removed from winning league MVP. But even though they butted heads, it had to have been a hard move to make considering Paul was an ideal fit on paper for Harden as a player who could excel with or without the ball. We saw the best version of Harden with Paul, which is why Morey gave up so many quality players for him. It just didn’t work out.

Westbrook is now filling the Paul role next to Harden. I don’t care if you love Westbrook so much that he’s your phone background image, he’s undeniably not the ideal fit for Harden. Westbrook has shot 30.5 percent from 3 throughout his career, and defenses don’t respect him as a shooter. Look at this play from the fourth quarter of Game 6:

Harden drives, only for four defenders to collapse into the paint. Westbrook has no one defending him. Prepared teams like Oklahoma City don’t fear his shot, and that kills Houston’s spacing. Paul is able to drift off the ball and intercept the pass, because there are no open passing lanes.

Westbrook obviously has his perks. He’s an energizer who brings a different pace to Houston’s offense, especially when Harden is out of the game. And, yes, he’s fearless. Westbrook has authored some of the league’s most awe-inspiring moments since he entered the league. The dunks. The triple-double seasons. The countless game-winners.

But Westbrook is the NBA’s version of Brett Favre: He’s a gunslinger who has breathtaking moments that are tainted by back-breaking turnovers in pivotal moments of big games. We saw that time and time again down the stretch of Game 6, just as we have in moments during past postseasons.

“We’ve gotta take care of it. Starting with myself,” Westbrook said after Game 6. “I’m just trying to figure out rhythm and timing, but I’ll figure it out next game.” We’ll see. Westbrook has had 14 playoff games with at least seven turnovers in the 100 total playoff games he’s played, which is a higher rate than any of the 23 players with more than two seven-turnover games since his career started, per Stathead. He’s also one of the most inefficient; of 82 players with over 500 shots during those playoff years, he ranks 70th in true shooting percentage; Harden ranks eighth.

Westbrook is an incredible player with some major flaws, and those flaws can be mitigated if Westbrook leans into a more ancillary role as a defender, cutter, and screener. That means giving up the ball more often, especially late in games. But it also falls on Harden to embrace his status as one of the most lethal scorers ever and command the ball in late-game situations, demanding Westbrook or anyone else give it up. Fair or not, Harden’s legacy is on the line. If he wants to be remembered as more than the guard version of Karl Malone, then he needs to come through in the playoffs.

Morey and D’Antoni built a system that has powered some of the most efficient offenses in regular-season history. The shooting and spacing is setting the coordinates for the rest of the league to follow. But too often in the playoffs, the Rockets have stalled out. They can become predictable, and it puts a major physical demand on Harden.

“Variety” is the word that team executives and coaches have been using lately to describe which coaching approaches are most successful. People around the league wonder why the Rockets don’t unlock the midrange late in the clock, or late in the game. There are countless moments when a defender is just sitting on the 3-point line. Or when defenders know not to fear the midrange pull-up on a drive. Those shots may not be statistically more valuable than a spot-up 3, but now that nobody expects it to be coming, it should be a wide-open chance. Especially for Harden. He’s a 24.6 percent shooter from 3 in the fourth quarter and overtime of playoff games over the past five years. But he’s a career 39.1 percent on midrange jumpers. Couldn’t a pull-up 2 be a more statistically beneficial shot for him late in a game than a stepback 3?

We haven’t seen much variety from Harden since D’Antoni became his coach four years ago. D’Antoni has integrated more sets with off-ball screening, and utilized Harden as a screener. But Harden is still too often a bystander. When Harden gives up the ball, why does he hover between the 3-point line and the logo? While Harden should demand the ball more, it would be helpful if he did so while he was moving. The Warriors, the team that always stood in the way of the Rockets, have had massive success because they don’t run a stagnant offense. Steph Curry makes a pass and doesn’t stand near midcourt; he relocates off the ball and makes himself available for a cut or a 3. He’s a constant threat. But Harden is forced to watch. The fact that Westbrook assisted Harden only 35 times this season (and Paul did only 29 and 39 times in his two seasons in Houston) is shocking, and it’s a reflection of how little Harden moves in Houston’s offense. Cutting was a staple of Harden’s game when he was the third wheel behind Kevin Durant and Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Why not bring it back?

It’s too late to change in these playoffs, though. Morey built the roster to play this style, with stationary off-ball shooters like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington. For a team that shoots a historic amount of 3s, it’s too bad nobody on the roster besides Harden is a knockdown shooter. Westbrook shot 25.8 percent from 3 this season. Covington and Eric Gordon, who has been a complete dud in Round 1, shot below 32 percent for Houston. Everyone else shot near the league average, between 34.5 and 36.5 percent, except for Ben McLemore, who shot 40 percent. They ranked 24th as a whole in 3-point shooting this season, and only sixth in offense, after three consecutive years in the top two. Finding high-end shooters who also have the flexibility to switch screens on defense is tremendously difficult, and expensive. The players Morey has found have been good, but not great.

The Rockets still have a Game 7 to play, but given their performance against the Thunder, it’s hard to feel optimistic about their odds if they make it to the next round against the Lakers. Covington can’t stop any dribble penetration, let alone LeBron James’s. Steven Adams can’t jump over a thin-cut slice of cheese, while the Lakers have bouncy finishers in Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee. Houston needs to shoot the hell out of it to have any chance, and it likely just doesn’t have the weapons.

It could be another year of Harden’s prime wasted. The clock is ticking, too. Harden and Westbrook can become free agents in 2022 if they choose to decline their player options for the 2022-23 season. That year, Harden will turn 33 and Westbrook will turn 34. Miles are piling up for Harden. Miles and injuries are adding up for Westbrook, who has undergone multiple surgeries and procedures for his knee issues over the years. Most recently, he had a quadriceps problem that kept him sidelined for multiple seeding games and the first four games of the OKC series. Players like Westbrook, who rely so much on their explosive athleticism, don’t always age well.

With those players’ mortality in mind, the entire Rockets organization needs to use this offseason to take a long look in the mirror and figure out who they want to be. Harden has reached great heights, but how else can he evolve? How can Westbrook adapt? Should D’Antoni remain the head coach? Should Morey tweak his system? What measures can be taken to improve the supporting cast? Debate the importance of these problems any way you want, but every single one of them needs to be solved. If the Rockets don’t change soon, they’ll be the next team that will need to blow it up.