HOUSTON – James Harden headed straight for the tunnel as the final ring sounded at the end of the sixth game on Friday, not giving a nod or a look of appreciation to the winners.
It's hard to blame Harden for not wanting to see the Golden State Warriors, the dynasty that continually condemns its Houston Rockets.
Harden will have to wait at least another year to continue his first title after the Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs by the Warriors for the fourth time in five seasons.
"Keep fighting, man," Harden said after the Warriors rallied to win a 118-113 win to knock out the Rockets. "They're obviously a very, very good team, they're a great team, they've been in the final over the last four or five years, we're not losing for some scrubs, we need to find a way to keep going. to improve, to continue to grow, to improve and to continue to position ourselves to continue playing. "
The long-running quest of organizing an NBA championship parade in downtown Houston, as did Hakeem Olajuwon and Clutch City teams two consecutive summers a generation ago, is a all-in-one mission for the Rockets. But after retiring in the semifinals of the Western Conference on Friday, the Harden Rockets took a marked step back from last year, when they were at a final victory. from the NBA.
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"People say, 'I want to go to the NBA,' and then your goals change." I want to be a very good player in this league, "and then, it's like," I agree, I want to be the best player in the league, "said Harden recently to ESPN. .
"I want to be one of the best basketball players of all time.Of course, I have to get the other rewards, similar rewards, win a token and all these good things." But why not? what am I playing? "Why not?"
"I think he's already one of the best players not to have won one," said ESPN Daryl Morey, general manager of the Rockets, earlier in the playoffs. "Hopefully we'll remove it from this list very soon … I think we'll rectify that in a short time."
At this point, however, Harden's weakness in the playoffs does not bode well for his legacy, preventing him from being widely recognized as belonging to one of the top ranks of the greats.
His post-season achievements are eclipsed by his playoff failures. Harden has played eight games in the playoffs by 40 points, a total of just 11 players in NBA history, but his most memorable playoff performance was a dismal finish – a 10-point dud in six. rounds when Kawhi Leonard less-Spurs ended the Rockets race in 2017 with a rout in Houston; a nightmare shooting 12 out of 12, at a 2015 elimination match against the Warriors; even a bit below the NBA finals in 2012 as the Thunder lost to the Miami Heat.
"I'm not really paying attention," says Harden. "One of the best aspects of the situation is that I do not concentrate on it, I do not pay attention to it, people will always have something to say, good and bad. I said, until you are in this position, you will not understand it, no need to try to explain it to you. "
HOUSTON STUMBLED TO 11-14 start this season after a final appearance of the West in 2018, which was certainly alarming.
This forced Morey to admit that Carmelo Anthony, the off-season addition to the low-risk Rockets but of high notoriety, was a terrible fit. Houston put every 10 games to decide that the Melo experience was a disaster, resulting in an embarrassing divorce.
This prompted the owner, Tilman Fertitta, to personally recruit assistant head coach Jeff Bzdelik after his brief retirement, thus giving Mike D's right arm Antoni an increase to get back on the bench and help solve the terrible defense problems of Houston.
And get out of this hole without the help of injured teammates Chris Paul and Clint Capela brought out the best of Harden. He responded with the biggest party of the modern era – 32 consecutive performances of more than 30 points, the longest of its kind by anyone other than Wilt Chamberlain – to put the Rockets in the penultimate of the Western standings to legitimacy. candidate status.
The players of Harden's caliber are finally judged by the results of the playoffs, but this is indisputably a legendary regular season. 29-year-old Harden fired rockets wounded by the wounds in the bottom of the Western standings, while arguably preparing the best individual offensive season of all time, given the scorecard and distributor points and efficiency .
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Harden has improved his score average more than any defending champion since Chamberlain, from 30.4 to 36.1 points per game. Some have attributed this increase to an increase in volume, but what made the Harden season so rare is its ability to maintain incredible efficiency while supporting such a heavy workload. He had a real shot percentage of .616 this season, slightly higher than his career standard and exactly his average for the last three seasons' stats. It was also the highest of all times for a player averaging at least 35 points in a season.
"It's getting better every year," said Dr. Antoni. "He had a better year this year than last year, he had a better year last year than the first year, he takes better care of his body, he eats better. He added a step back, which he had, but now he has somehow perfected it.He added a float that he had, but now it is better, his defense improves every year, the guy is phenomenal. "
Houston-based development coach Irv Roland, who works daily with Harden and accompanies him this summer, has seen a noticeable increase in Harden's training after the Rockets 2015-16 season. Houston was eliminated in the first round after a 41-41 win – the Rockets' worst season with Harden – and he was ruled out of the NBA teams for the only time since he joined the Rockets despite the fact that he is second in the league in scoring and sixth in help.
Roland had no doubt that Harden's hunger would not be satisfied by winning the MVP title in 2018.
"I know him and he wants to win a championship," Roland said. "An individual award is great, but it was not as if it was the point of stopping – it's almost like beating Golden State." Our goal is not to beat Golden State; it's winning a championship. big picture. "
BUT THE WARRIORS are the obstacles Harden and Houston can not erase. The Rockets have tried and failed four times in five years, the first two attempts as distant shots, the last two as worthy opponents, making the end as painful as the game in the second game. Draymond Green who left the eyes of Harden bloodshot the rest of this series.
Morey admits that he is very aware of the pressure exerted by leveraging a window to win a title open primarily through Harden's prowess.
"It's annoying for me because he's most likely the best player I'll ever work with," said Morey. "I hope my career will be very long and that someone will do better, but it's unlikely.It's so good.That's why when we started slowly and that I had the impression of having dropped it, quite upsetting. "
But the Rockets have straightened the ship, breaking the NBA record after All-Star's victory after training the Houston starting team for health and for the bench bench upgrade. . The stage was set for Harden and Houston to finally overcome the bump, especially after Kevin Durant's fall, but the Warriors' reign continued.
Harden's playoff statistics vary widely from his regular season stats, especially in terms of efficiency, though averaging 28.1 points and 7.0 assists per playoff game, the player Rockets reference can not be qualified as narrowed.
It's hard to blame Harden for the inability of the Rockets to break through, especially a year ago when Paul's hamstrings gave way while the Rockets had the Warriors on the ropes. But the "best" to hit a basketball should not let go of assumptions.
Of course, only one title is enough to change the story.
Take, for example, Dirk Nowitzki, who demolished all the idiotic discussions about the sweet euro stereotype by wearing the Dallas Mavericks for 2011, five years after his fall in the NBA Finals.
But others on the list that Morey has referenced among the best legends without rings prove just how rare and precious these opportunities are. Charles Barkley only participated in one final. Same for Allen Iverson, who had arrived as a 25-year-old MVP and never returned. John Stockton and Karl Malone had some problems as a duo, being denied twice by the Michael Jordan Bulls, just like Barkley.
Heck, Paul came to Houston because he thought it gave him the best chance to remove his name from this list. He had never even snorted the final of the conference before last season.
Harden had a final as the sixth man in the Thunder and struggled, scoring three figures in the same series three times in the series while the Heat won in five games. He hopes to have another chance, but the Warriors continue to get in the way.
"It's a driving force since I've been in the league," said Harden after winning a championship. "It's the goal of everyone who plays in the NBA, that's exactly what it is.
"In the end, it's not going to determine my success, my happiness and all that's good.In the end, you enter a career, you get into things you like to do because you want to take care of yourself. family, you want to take care of people around you, you want to make people happy and all these good things, so it's not going to determine my ultimate career, my life, you work there, every day, when I go to the gym, that's what I think. "
Again, Harden will have more off-season time than he will want to think about the goal that continues to escape.