James Harden needs to bring his "A" game. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
It's time for the second coming of Big Game James as the Rockets try to avoid elimination.
One game, winner-take-all for the Western Conference and loser goes home. For all the obsessing, talking, hard work that got you home court advantage and the upper hand that came with it, no one mentioned the devastating hand the Rockets would be dealt. Now it could be the final hand if James Harden and the rest of the team don't find a way to win Game 7.
We've heard the term "elimination James" and are far too familiar with the narrative and the history that backs that moniker up. James Harden had nine turnovers in Game 6 and gave his critics plenty of ammunition to continue the criticism and add to that negativity. This is a guy who disappeared a year ago in an elimination game against a short-handed Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The same guy that set an NBA record for turnovers by an individual player in a playoff game the last time the Rockets were in the WCF. Even this year, his biggest games came in Game 1's of the first two series and without Chris Paul's late series and late game heroics, this Rockets team may already be fishing. Now there is no CP3 to save the day and guide the troops to victory which makes the spotlight on the Beard brighter and the expectations of Red Nation even higher.
Even if Paul can somehow pull a Clyde Drexler a la Game 5 in Phoenix in 1995, he will probably be as ineffective as the Glyde was and only there as motivation for the rest of his squad. Sure, the role players have to step up and do their part as they have done in every playoff victory, but with Coach D'Antoni basically going with a 7 man rotation, they can only do so much. At the end of the day, this is why James Harden is paid the big bucks and for all the glory and accolades, there are times like this when your shoulders have to be wide enough to carry the team and the entire city of Houston to victory. James Harden is the MVP.
The Beard has put together a four-year run that has included three years where he could have won that award and two that he should have. He is a great player and has a huge window of future success ahead of him, but there is also a rear view mirror full of playoff failures. Stars are born and reputations built in the regular season, which coincidentally is also when the MVP is voted on.
The playoffs are a different animal, where legends are constructed and history is written. Robert Horry was never an all-star but is the subject of legitimate Hall of Fame discussions because of his postseason success and his ability to transform into "Big Shot Bob" when his team needed him the most. So, for all of the broken dreams and busted bubbles of the past, all can be right if he can just lead his team to victory in the biggest game of their season and with it, punch their ticket to the big dance and a date with a guy who has shown the world how it's done and how big games are won.
As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.
Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).
Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.
But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.
Cristian Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. He acknowledged that some of his struggles last year could be attributed to some extra weight he was carrying around in addition to the already-documented mechanical flaws he had.
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) February 22, 2024
In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.
Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.
The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.