By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – May 11, 2019)
“Narrative” can really become an albatross around the neck of someone’s life, whether it be in certain aspects or as an overall summation of that person’s perceived worth. That’s the problem with placing value on one particular thing, even if that thing happens to pay that individual millions of dollars.
However, I’m not here to defend what we all witnessed last night in Houston as the Rockets again failed to exorcise their playoff demons and went down to a somewhat depleted Golden State Warriors team that, quite frankly, I still believed all along would win the series.
Pundits all day on Thursday and Friday talked of how not only would Mike D’Antoni’s club win at home and force a Game 7, they would win HANDILY. I immediately took exception to the prediction because it was based sheerly on the absence of Kevin Durant. Now, make no mistake, that’s a gigantic loss. There couldn’t be a bigger one for one team other than Milwaukee losing Giannis Antetokounmpo. The issue for the Warriors this postseason dates back to the regular season, in that they easily could become disinterested and disengaged. That’s why it’s tougher to maintain a dynasty than most people realize, because superstars believe in their own hype (usually for legitimate reasons) and it’s harder to keep the fire alive.
This is the reason Tom Brady and the New England Patriots consistently try to find a way to play a nonsensical underdog card. They know it’s ridiculous to all of us, but if they can just make themselves believe everybody’s counting them out, that’s all it takes. This is the proverbial “bulletin board material” concept, and the reason you’ve heard of it before is because it can work. Athletes are motivated in different fashions, just as radio personalities are. Some need to see ratings numbers in the toilet in order to step up their games. Others need to hear other shows that impress them and realize, “I want to be better than THAT guy.” Still others simply want to be the best from day one and those are the people that set the bar.
That goes for any industry, any job, because there’s always going to be a hierarchy behind any occupation. Some are content to be good, some are content to forge no relationships, some want to be the highest paid, and others have more altruistic motivations. We’re all individuals and we’re all wired differently. We were created intelligently to be unique. It’s that variety we experience in our everyday lives through our encounters and our successes and failures that makes life more unpredictable and resistant to over-preparation.
I stated multiple times since the beginning of the 2019 NBA postseason that I couldn’t pick the Houston Rockets to escape the Warriors, to get out of the Western Conference, or certainly to win the NBA Finals, and it has zero to do with talent.
It has everything to do with EVIDENCE.
You see, when you go to a movie and you see an ending…then you go to the sequel and you see the same ending, what may have at one time been a blip becomes a trend. Avengers: Endgame, in all its brilliance, is the culmination of a Marvel Studios formula that, with very few exceptions, has been repeated 22 times. I could lay it out for you, but why don’t you just subscribe to the Pop 6 podcast at your catcher of choice and listen to this week’s episode. Yeah, that’s a plug…deal with it.
I watched James Harden in the NBA Finals completely disappear as the “third” man alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant against the Miami Heat. That Oklahoma City Thunder team was loaded, and now we realize just how much, as all three of those guys are no-doubt first ballot Hall of Famers and league MVPs. But, Harden turned into Casper the Flopping Friendly Ghost against LeBron James, D-Wade, and crew, and it was inexplicable. He was the guy nobody wanted to play against because his game is obnoxious and his personality is bristly towards the opposition.
His Finals numbers were putrid. How bad? He averaged just 12 points per contest in the give game series, shooting a gaudy 37.5% from the floor. James Harden, the man Charles Barkley now calls the most prolific scorer and unguardable player in NBA history offensively, made a total of 18 buckets. In comparison, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both made over 50. Yes, they started, but Harden was the leader of the second unit. He was asked to play the Manu Ginobili role, coming off the bench and being basically THE offense and the guy that could get his own shot when KD and Russ needed a rest.
Flash forward to 2017, where the Rockets were dispatched by the San Antonio Spurs in six games. Harden shot 2-11 in the closeout loss, turned it over six times, fouled out, and looked like he barely cared on the sidelines in the second quarter. Houston didn’t just lose. Houston was embarrassed as the Spurs crushed them 114-75. Never mind that James Harden was on the MVP candidate short list, this was the very definition of choke job.
“But it was the Spurs!” Bad argument. One thing I forgot to mention that is important here is that Gregg Popovich was without his best player in this game, as Kawhi Leonard was injured and unavailable.
That’s just two examples. Recall last season in Game 7 where both the Boston Celtics and Harden’s Rockets had Game 7 performances for the dumpster, not the ages, as they couldn’t buy a jump shot. Houston had a built in excuse with Chris Paul hurt and not able to play in the winner-take-all battle with Golden State.
Speaking of Chris Paul, he’s right there with James Harden. Despite the fact that both scored last night effectively, neither seemed to be forcing the issue or placing their stamp on the game. And, of all the basketball sins these two Hall of Famers have been a part of in their storied careers, it was the loss on May 10, 2019 that might leave the lasting odor.
What it did was reinforce the narrative that observers like me have pointed to the entire time: They’re Hall of Famers, but you don’t win Championships with Chris Paul and James Harden. I can’t defend losing to Golden State in the manner they did, because although they both played well on Friday night, neither showed up to win the one they had to, which was the one at Oracle Arena on Wednesday night. It’s THAT game, not last night, that kept the legacy of futility and “not gonna happen with this duo” alive.
When Kevin Durant went down, Houston has to win that game, but instead, James Harden only attempted three shots in the fourth quarter, with only one in the last eight minutes. Some credit goes to Andre Iguodala, whose defense has always been exquisite, but the blame goes to the Beard and it goes to his head coach for not finding a way to get his superstar the ball. Meanwhile, Chris Paul was putting forth the single worst performance of his entire NBA playoff career, and the Warriors, deflated and with a crowd that feared KD had torn his Achilles…won and took a 3-2 series lead.
Why anybody would predict the Rockets to win by a substantial margin on Friday night is baffling, because there’s no history of the two key stars on that team ever showing that shut the door, close the deal, this is a wrap kind of mentality. Instead, from the tip, Golden State played like they were down 3-2 and the Rockets, sans PJ Tucker, looked more like they felt the game was in the bag.
The only thing left in the bag now…is the hopes and dreams of Houston fans who actually let themselves believe these two guys would lead them to the promised land against a Golden State team with a Hall of Fame coach and the best shooting backcourt in NBA history. Furthermore, the Warriors know how to win Championships and they’ve reached the promised land, so it wasn’t quite as surprising to see the role players show up on the road, which usually doesn’t happen in this league.
This one stings worse than the rest for the legacy of James Harden and Chris Paul, even though neither necessarily choked. They just didn’t finish the job, and Harden, one of the league’s best free throw shooters, managed to miss 5 of his 12, which would turn out to be a huge stat in the end. But, while last year the Game 7 loss had the CP3 excuse, this year all the excuses were on the side of the two-time defending Champions, missing the best player in the NBA. But, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson still know how to play, and you have to put 48 minutes together against those guys or you’ll get beat. Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, even the Shaun Livingstons of the world…these guys have a lot of pride and they know how to win.
James Harden and Chris Paul don’t. They never have. I said I couldn’t predict them to win until I saw them do it. I knew they were capable, but I wouldn’t believe they WOULD win until they actually DID, then we can talk about them doing it again. We’re still waiting for the first title, and with 116 million dollars already committed to Harden, Paul, Capela, Gordon, and Tucker for next season, this team is going to go right back at it with the same guys next year. There’s not a ton of wiggle room here.
Harden said last night in his postgame press conference he knows how to beat the Warriors now. He says he has the solution, but said he’d keep it to himself.
Cool story, bro.
Regardless of how many points Harden scores in the regular season, regardless of how many people say Chris Paul is one of the five best point guards to ever live, which may well be true…
…what you won’t hear, read, or see, is me to predict them to do much of anything when it matters.
Because the evidence just doesn’t stack up in their favor.
I rest my case.