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2017 NBA Playoffs

A ‘frustrated’ James Harden falls flat in season-ending loss

Spurs, playing without Kawhi Leonard, suffocate Rockets star to advance to West finals

It would take a lot for perhaps the most outspoken coach in sports to be at a loss for words after a series-ending playoff win. Such was the case for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who was stumped when he respectfully approached NBA MVP candidate James Harden after Harden’s lackluster performance in the Houston Rockets’ season finale.

“He said he didn’t know what to say,” Harden said.

What can you really say in consolation when your Spurs end the Rockets’ memorable season by beating them by 39 points in Houston? When Spurs All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard had the night off because of an ankle injury? When Harden, perhaps the league’s most intimidating scorer, was limited to a mere 10 points with six turnovers?

“It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating the way we lost. You live. You learn. You grow on things like that,” Harden told The Undefeated after his Rockets were eliminated from the second round of the NBA playoffs with a 114-75 loss to the Spurs in Game 6 of the best-of-seven series on Thursday night.

The only way your NBA season doesn’t end in pain is if your team is standing on a podium holding up the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. The Rockets had two on display at the Toyota Center, enclosed in glass on a table in owner Les Alexander’s private dining room. Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon also sat courtside as a reminder of those old “heart of a champion” Rockets.

There wasn’t much heart shown by the Rockets on a do-or-die night that put an ugly blemish on Harden’s otherwise beautiful season. The face of the Rockets was averaging 30.3 points in the playoffs entering Game 6. The Rockets have lived and died by the 3-pointer all season and laugh at the thought of a midrange jumper. Harden, besides hitting the 3-pointer, had to have one of those Rockets performances for the ages, and perhaps the performance of his eight-year NBA career.

Instead, Harden’s night became forgettable from the start. He oddly didn’t take a shot in the first quarter as the Spurs finished the frame with a 31-24 lead. His first shot was a missed step-back 3-pointer with 6:19 remaining in the second quarter.

“I really just didn’t have any rhythm from the beginning of the game,” Harden said in the postgame news conference. “I felt like I was making some passes and we just didn’t knock down shots.”

Harden had only five points on just two field-goal attempts at halftime as the Rockets trailed 61-42. The five-time NBA All-Star said he did his best to rally the troops, and himself, in the locker room after they were booed off the floor by Rockets fans at the break. The Rockets, however, appeared primed for vacation as they fell behind as many as 42 points before the season’s final buzzer sounded.

“At halftime, I said we had to stay with it, give ourselves a chance,” Harden told The Undefeated. “Don’t try to make a 20-point shot. Break it down. And we just came out flat. We couldn’t make a shot.”

So, was Harden sick? There was talk of a lingering cold.

“He’s battling a cold, but nothing that I know of. You’ll have to talk to him,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden said he felt fine physically.

He did mention the Spurs’ crowding defense suffocating him like the Houston heat and closing the lane with their twin towers of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge. Harden averaged 20 shots per game in the first five games of the series on 44 percent shooting from the field. Harden missed nine of 11 field-goal attempts Thursday. He shot 32.1 percent from 3-point range against San Antonio entering the contest but missed seven of nine 3-pointers in Game 6. Harden fouled out in 36 minutes after scoring a playoff low.

The Spurs admitted they were focused primarily on stopping Harden.

“We did a solid job on him,” Spurs guard Danny Green said. “He fouled out with 10 points. He’s a tough guy to guard. We showed a crowd, a collective. We did it all together. We communicated. We talked. We got to shooters the best we could. We played at our pace. We slowed it down.

“[A crowding defense] is the key to every star player. Not let him be comfortable. Not let him get a rhythm. Show a crowd the best you can. Let other guys beat you.”

“It’s frustrating, especially with how great of a year that we had,” Harden said.

Trevor Ariza scored a team-high 20 points for the Rockets, while Clint Capela added 15. The Rockets’ two Sixth Man of the Year candidates struggled, as 3-point specialists Eric Gordon and Lou Williams combined for two 3-pointers. Usual sharpshooter Ryan Anderson was scoreless, missing all six shots.

The Spurs’ decision to smother Harden and make the rest of the Rockets beat them worked out better than expected. As one of the NBA’s superstars, Harden took responsibility for the loss, and rightfully so. The 6-foot-5 converted point guard used “frustrating” several times in his attempt to explain the largest road playoff win in Spurs history.

“It’s frustrating, especially with how great of a year that we had,” Harden said. “To end like that is frustrating. I beat myself up for it a little bit. I can’t dwell on it too long.”

Harden averaged career highs of 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds and also earned a league-best 64 double-doubles this season. The Los Angeles native became the first NBA player to record at least 2,000 points, 900 assists and 600 rebounds.

Harden finished the playoffs averaging 28.5 points, 8.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals. In NBA history, the only other player to average at least 28 points, 8.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals in a single postseason with at least six games played was the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan in 1991.

Harden also went toe-to-toe with Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook for the NBA MVP award that will be revealed in the league’s first awards show, hosted by Drake on June 26 in New York.

When the dust settles on Harden’s painful end, he should truly appreciate his 2016-17 campaign as one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. But it’s too early right now. Harden walked slowly out of the Toyota Center for the last time this season while wearing a Gucci hoodie over his head. He was not thinking about MVP or all his points before receiving a consoling hug from his mom.

The Spurs play Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, while Harden and the Rockets will be free to celebrate Mother’s Day. The good news for the Rockets was Harden was already thinking redemption before he could drive away from the nightmarish night.

“I’ve just got to be better. I’ve got to find things that work for me and get back in the lab. Lock in. Focus on getting better,” Harden told The Undefeated.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.