FEAR THE BEARD

How scathing criticism of James Harden could impact Rockets homecoming

How scathing criticism of James Harden could impact Rockets homecoming
Will James Harden return to the Rockets? Composite Getty Image.
Rockets shrug off setbacks behind Harden's continued dominance

When my son was 4 years old, I signed him up to play kiddie soccer. The whole family, plus friends and even my boss from work, came to the park to watch him play his first game, a baby step toward what surely would be a championship athletic career. I had my camcorder ready to roll. His uniform was freshly washed. I even ironed it. How exciting! I just hoped he would allow some of the other kids to score goals, too.

Then, just before the team took the field, he started crying. “Take me home!” There was no stopping him from crying and sniffling – a total meltdown. “I want to go home!” So I picked him up and off we went home.

On that day, my son gave a better effort than James Harden gave the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics last Sunday.

Harden, the three-time NBA scoring champ, scored nine points on 3 for 11 shooting, before eventually quitting on the team, moping around on the court, refusing to shoot and failing to hustle back on defense after blowing a layup. It was an unparalleled, yet typical, performance by Harden. That's how badly Harden stunk up the court. He did everything short of crying, “I want to go home!”

During the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, I texted my friend Glen Macnow, who's a sports talk show host in Philly. I asked him, are you enjoying James Harden's antics?

He fired back: “unbelievable, despicable, career defining as an embarrassing choke artist.” You could almost hear the disgust in his words.

I told him, down here in Houston, we've seen this before.

He answered, “We knew that. We essentially predicted it as a strong possibility on the show this (Sunday) morning.”

On Monday, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith really unloaded on Harden. “James Harden was so awful, so bad, he should actually shave his beard so he can hide his identity. It was really, really bad. I say that in all seriousness. I'm not joking. It was that bad. It will be difficult for him to walk the streets (of Philadelphia). You don't do what you saw him do on Sunday afternoon in a Game 7.”

And what about the rumor that Harden may return to the Rockets?

Stephen A. said, “They ain't giving him no max deal, they ain't giving him a major long-term deal, I can assure you of that. This performance right here turned a whole bunch of people off about James Harden.”

I wonder, does that include Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who has made his fondness, bordering on fatal attraction, for Harden very public? After Harden forced his way out of Houston three years ago, Fertitta famously told Harden he would be welcomed back to Houston in the future. If Harden agreed to a deal with Houston, it wouldn't surprise me if Toyota Center sold Boiled Bunny Sandwiches next year.

Given his stunningly gutless performance Sunday, why do we continue to hear that Harden to Houston is a real possibility? In fact, Vegas oddsmakers say it's likely that Harden will opt out of his contract with the 76ers and his No. 1 landing place, at -150 where betting is legal (not Texas), is Houston. Phoenix is the wiseguy's second choice at +250. Wow, can you imagine that? James Harden and Kevin Durant on the same team? You might as well just hand the Larry O'Brien trophy to the Suns now. Kyrie Irving is a free agent, right? What could possibly go wrong?

On Monday, NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, “Houston is a very real possibility for Philadelphia's James Harden in free agency … there's a comfort level in Houston for James Harden … he's very comfortable in that environment … he knows ownership, he knows the front office.” Woj added, “Regardless of whether they win the lottery and can draft Victor Wembanyama, my sense is that it would not change the Rockets' intentions to pursue James Harden.”

Barring a reshuffling of the roster, the Rockets next year will roll out a team comprised mostly of rookies, second and third-year players without much hope of making a deep playoff run – given the team finished last in the Western Conference the last three years with records of 22-60, 20-62 and 17-55. Perhaps more than a big-time scorer who could help them inch closer to .500, the Rockets could use a mature veteran, a role model for the younger players, someone who can show them how to be responsible, professional NBA players, a real team-first kind of leader. That's not Harden, at least it wasn't his first time around with the Rockets.

Harden reportedly still calls Houston “home.” Last summer, Harden said, “My family is here, my mom, my sister, my brother – so this (Houston) is the place I would call home.”

Author Thomas Wolfe wrote a famous novel called You Can't Go Home Again.

We'll have to see about that.

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Astros defeat the Orioles, 5-1. Composite Getty Image.

Ronel Blanco pitched seven strong innings and Chas McCormick homered twice to lead the Houston Astros to a 5-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday.

Yordan Alvarez added a two-run shot to help Houston extend its winning streak to four games.

Blanco (8-2), who threw seven hitless innings in his last start, allowed four hits and a run with three strikeouts for his third straight win.

Alvarez put the Astros on top with his 16th homer, which came off Corbin Burnes (8-3) in the third, and McCormick made it 4-1 in the fifth. McCormick got his fifth career multihomer game when he connected again in the eighth.

Burnes allowed five hits, including a season-high two homers and a season-most four runs in seven innings to snap his career-best streak of 10 consecutive quality starts. He was 5-0 in seven starts since a loss at Washington on May 7.

Jordan Westburg homered in the second for the Orioles, who set a franchise record with 21 straight games with a home run to surpass the 1998 squad's 20-game streak.

Baltimore had troubled stringing hits together Saturday after scoring 28 runs combined in the last two games. The top four batters in their order combined to go 1 for 13 against Blanco and Houston's bullpen.

Ryan Pressly threw a scoreless eighth before Josh Hader struck out two in a perfect ninth to end it.

Westburg connected off Blanco with one out in the second to put the Orioles up 1-0.

Yainer Diaz opened Houston’s second with a triple on a line drive to right field. The Astros tied it when he scored on a sacrifice fly by Mauricio Dubón with one out.

McCormick singled with no outs in the third and the shot to center field by Alvarez came with two outs to put Houston on top 3-1.

McCormick’s home run to the seats in left field extended the lead to 4-1 with one out in the fifth.

Cedric Mullins tripled off the wall in center with one out in the seventh. Colton Cowser hit a sharp line drive, but was robbed of a hit when shortstop Jeremy Peña made a leaping catch for the second out. Blanco then retired Ramón Urías to end the inning and leave Mullins stranded.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Astros: RHP Jake Bloss, who made his major league debut Friday night, was placed on the injured list with right shoulder discomfort.

ROSTER MOVES

Astros: RHP Nick Hernandez was optioned to Triple-A Sugar Land on Friday night. ... LHP Bryan King was selected to the MLB roster and RHP Luis Contreras was recalled from Sugar Land on Saturday. … RHP Alex Speas was designated for assignment.

UP NEXT

Houston LHP Framber Valdez (5-5, 3.91 ERA) opposes RHP Albert Suárez (3-1, 2.05) in the series finale Sunday.

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