Moore: Will a Rested James Harden Impact the Houston Rockets’ Western Conference Title Hopes?

Credit:

Mike Stobe/Getty Images. Pictured: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets

What happens if a player prone to exhaustion in May effectively has a hard reset? We’re about to find out this season when James Harden and the Houston Rockets enter the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

The strangest playoff meltdown I’ve ever seen came from the Rockets in 2017.

It was stranger than LeBron James in 2010 to the Celtics, a dominant team led by three Hall of Famers. It was far worse than the Rockets’ loss in Game 7 to the Golden State Warriors in 2018 when they missed 27 straight 3-pointers.

Here are the teams that knocked the Rockets out of the postseason since 2015:

2015: Warriors
2016: Warriors
2017: Spurs
2018: Warriors
2019: Warriors

It’s hard to blame the Rockets for losing to the Warriors, one of the most dominant dynasties in NBA history — especially in 2018 when Chris Paul went down with a hamstring injury — they got a rotten series of calls (regardless of the absurdity of the Rockets leaking the report on it), and one of the all-time worst shooting slumps.

But that series against the San Antonio Spurs stands out as the most damning moment of Harden’s playoff career. He was on the bench for Houston’s historic comeback vs. the Clippers in 2015, but the victory overshadows that detail. In the Spurs series, the opposite happened. Kawhi Leonard was injured for Games 5 and 6 of that series and the Rockets lost both of them.

Houston had tied series by Game 4. The Spurs were trying to keep their two-big lineups on the floor and struggling. The Rockets’ sheer volume of 3’s was giving them problems.

Headed back to San Antonio for Game 5, the stage was set for the Rockets to take a commanding lead. Harden scored 33 points, but shot just 11-of-24 from the field and had a -6 plus/minus.

He shot 2-of-7 in the fourth quarter and overtime, racked up four turnovers and had his potential game-tying 3-pointer blocked by Manu Ginobili.

The Rockets needed more.

Game 6 was worse. Harden shot 2-of-11 from the field for just 10 points and the Rockets were outscored by 28 with him on the floor as the Spurs sent a very good Rockets team home.

There was speculation in the aftermath that Harden suffered a concussion in Game 5 (which would explain why he absolutely vanished in Game 6), but neither Harden nor anyone with the Rockets has confirmed.

After that game, a narrative was formed: the Rockets relied on Harden so much for 82 games of the regular season that he simply did not have enough left for the playoffs. “Harden runs out of gas” was born in 2017.


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When the NBA season resumes on July 31, the Rockets will have been idle for 143 days. The Rockets’ offseason from their elimination May 10, 2019 and their first regular-season game of this season lasted 167 days, not counting three weeks for training camp and preseason.

That hiatus is why several league executives over the past few weeks have described this as more of an independent playing atmosphere than anything resembling a “continuation” or “resumption” of the NBA season. They’ve essentially had an offseason.

There are teams that stand to benefit from getting their players back healthy for the play in Orlando like the Portland Trail Blazers (Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins) and the Philadelphia 76ers (Ben Simmons). But what the Rockets are getting is another dimension altogether.

Rested, prepared, conditioned, nay, skinny Harden.

Harden has to put some weight back before NBA games resume — he’ll get knocked into the third (empty) row at that weight — but it’s a sign of how seriously he’s approached the suspension, and how his conditioning won’t be lagging.

There is a serious question of whether or not Harden actually slows down and runs out of steam in playoff series.

Harden’s numbers are stable. But the Rockets’ numbers are not.

Houston goes from a 109 offensive rating in Games 1-5 of a series to 103.5 in Games 6 and 7. Houston has a net rating of 0.0 in Games 1-5 and -9.9 in Games 6 and 7.

Opponent quality matters here; Houston isn’t playing Game 6’s against their first-round opponents, but the drop off is stark.

Here’s a more broad look by playoff game of the Rockets’ net rating when he’s on the floor, since 2015:

This is obviously a tiny sample size, and that sample decreases the further along Harden gets. But the variation and trends are at least notable.

Maybe it’s not exhaustion, because his game by game performances remain stable. Maybe it’s just random luck and the quality of opponent.

Even if that’s the case, a more rested and better conditioned Harden is certainly not a bad thing.

There’s a reason the Rockets have the third-shortest NBA championship odds in the Western Conference:

Even better, the Rockets are +700, giving them a 12.5% chance to win the Western Conference title.

The Nuggets’ lead over the Thunder and Rockets (four games) makes it unlikely they slip to fourth or fifth, especially with Bojan Bogdanovic’s injury for the Jazz.

So the Rockets will likely have to go through the Lakers. The Lakers went 17-10 vs. the top 13 teams in the league this season, compared to a 15-11 record by Houston against those same competition — a gap, but not a monster one. Their net ratings in such games were comparable. Houston’s small-ball lineup beat the Lakers late in the season, going 1-1 vs. LeBron and Co.

The Rockets present two particular issues for the Lakers. First, the Lakers are a bottom-15 team in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions. The Rockets’ sheer volume presents a math problem for the Lakeshow. Second, the small-ball approach means that the Lakers’ temptation will be to feed Anthony Davis over and over again.

Davis is a monster, a beast, an incredible all-around player. But having to carry the load vs. tough defenders that will challenge his catch and give him a physical treatment (which smaller players get away with more often) is a riskier proposition than just filling in the gaps.

For five seasons in a row, Harden has burned himself to the wick trying to capture MVP, with just one to show for it. He showed real exhaustion during a mid-season slump this year. But with three months off before an eight-game resumption and the postseason, Harden is in prime position to give his best performance.

The Rockets are a variance play. They will always live and die with their ability to make open 3’s. But Harden has been to Game 6 the second round, or later in all but one season out of the past five. All the players will be rested, but with Harden, maybe the extended rest is the difference that unlocks him.

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