Patrick Creighton: Harden, Paul seek playoff redemption
It was something heard and read far too many times after the Houston Rockets acquired Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers:
Now they have two playoff choking stars.
While not necessarily a fair assessment, perception is 9/10ths reality, and that is the perception of James Harden and Chris Paul.
For Harden, fans go back to the 2012 NBA Finals when he was still a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then a third year player, Harden averaged nearly 17 PPG in a season he would win the Sixth Man of the Year Award. He was averaging 17.6 PPG in the playoffs through the first three rounds but then struggled most of the Finals vs LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Harden put up back-to-back 2 for 10 shooting nights in games 3 and 4 as the Heat would go on to take the series in 5 games.
After being traded to the Rockets that offseason, Harden would become one of the premier scorers in the league. The reconfigured Rockets overachieved to win 45 games, and would be matched up with Harden’s former Thunder teammates in the first round.
While Harden would average over 26 PPG, he struggled with his shot (45/115 FG 39%) as the overmatched Rockets went down 3-0 and eventually fell 4-2.
In 2014, Harden again would find himself struggling with his shot, this time in the first round vs the Portland Trail Blazers. Harden would go 8/28 in a very close Game 1 loss, and follow it with 6/19 (L), 13/35 (W), 9/21 (L), 5/15 (W) and finally a strong performance in Game 6 where he was 9/15 for 34 pts before Damian Lillard stuck the dagger in the hearts of Rockets fans when Chandler Parsons got lost on defense. It was sadly, too little too late from the Beard.
That series loss to Portland seemed to light a fire under Harden, as he would have his best season to date in 2014-15. The Rockets would make an improbable run to the Western Conference Finals, but Harden’s playoff woes would surface even before then.
In the first round vs. the Dallas Mavericks, Harden struggled in Games 1 & 2, before finding the range as the Rockets won the series in 5. In Round 2 vs the Clippers, the Rockets were down 3-1 and facing elimination. After winning Game 5 on the road, the Rockets would find themselves down 19 points late in the third quarter at home with their backs to the wall. Harden was a brutal 5/20 FG and was benched by Coach Kevin McHale. An 11-5 run would cut the deficit to 13 entering the 4th quarter, and the Rockets, led by Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Dwight Howard and Jason Terry would dominate the fourth quarter. They outscored the Clippers 40-15 in one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history. Harden watched from the bench. The Rockets would eventually win Game 7 as well behind 31 from Harden, and head to the WCF vs Golden State.
The Warriors were the superior team, but in the first two games Harden was terrific, finishing one assist shy of a triple double in each game as the Rockets lost both games in Bay Area by a combined total of only 5 points. The Rockets were outgunned, but were showing great resiliency and were giving the eventual champions all they could handle.
Game 3 moved to Toyota Center, and with the strong play on the road, fans and media alike were expecting another hard fought game, one that the Rockets could perhaps pull out at home. Instead the Rockets got mollywhopped by 35 as Harden finished 3/16 FG. It was a massive performance letdown at a time when the fans were ready to rally behind their MVP candidate (Harden would finish second to the Warriors Steph Curry). Harden would rebound with a 45 point explosion to lead the Rockets to a Game 4 victory, but he would completely fall apart in Game 5 on the road, where he shot 2/11 FG and turned the ball over 12 times as the Rockets were eliminated in five games.
The 2015-16 season would start out with Coach Kevin McHale being fired just 11 games into the season. Harden was injured and out of shape to start the year, and his feuding with Dwight Howard became more pronounced than ever. The Rockets barely made the playoffs, finishing 41-41 and sneaking in as the eighth seed. They would get the record-setting Warriors in Round 1.
The Rockets were clearly no match for Golden State this year, and came home to Toyota Center down 2-0. Harden shot 7/19 FG but did not get to the FT line in Game 1, and was again 7/19 FG in Game 2, but got to the FT line 15 times to account for 28 points in the loss.
In Game 3, Harden would drop 35/8/9 to lead the Rockets to an exciting 1-point triumph and fans had hope that the Bearded One could deliver again in Game 4 and make this a competitive series, but it was not to be. Harden would struggle in Game 4, shoot 4/13 FG for 18 pts (despite 7 Reb, 10 Ast, 7 Stl) and the Rockets got pasted by 27 to fall 3-1 in the series. The Rockets would lose the series 4-1.
Last season, Harden was again rejuvenated, and again finished second in the MVP race (a race this writer believes he should have won). After dispatching the Thunder in five games in Round 1, the Rockets would face off with the San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Semis.
After a solid Game 1 by Harden saw the Rockets dominate the Spurs on the road, Harden followed with a 3/17 FG performance in which Houston was pummeled by 25. Harden would put up three terrific games in a row, although the Rockets would lose two of them, including a painful Game 5 loss in San Antonio by just three points.
In Game 6, facing a Spurs squad without star Kawhi Leonard, at home, backs to the wall, Harden and the Rockets came undone. James would shoot 2/11 FG with 6 TOs, and Houston was obliterated by 39 on their home floor. After the game, it was clear Harden was exhausted from the massive load he had carried all year long, and he needed more help.
Enter Chris Paul.
Paul’s playoff failures are not necessarily as pronounced as Harden’s with catastrophic failures in key games, but the fact is he has never been to a Conference Finals. While that is understandable with the then-New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans), it is considered a failure with the talented Clippers teams he led.
Also, he’s not without failure games.
In 2011-12, the Clippers would advance to the second round vs the Spurs. In Game 1, Paul was 3/13 FG with only six points and five TOs. In Game 2, Paul shot 4/9 FG and finished with 10 points and 8 TOs. Game 3 he was 5/17 FG and finished with only 12 pts. The Clippers lost all three games by double figured en route to being swept.
In 2012-13, the Clippers didn’t make it out of the first round, falling 4 -2 to the Memphis Grizzlies despite winning the first two games and a strong series for Paul. While losing 4 in a row was a failure, Paul’s play was notably strong, as he averaged nearly 23 PPG, over 6 APG, and shot over 53% FG.
In 2013-14 the Clippers would win an epic first round 7 gamer vs the Warriors (which ultimately would get Warriors coach Mark Jackson fired). Paul would have a strong series, and in Game 7 would play over 42 mins, finishing 8/15 FG for 22 pts and 14 assists to take the series.
In the Conference Semis vs Oklahoma City, Paul was terrific. Paul averaged 22.5 PPG, nearly 12 APG, and 2.5 steals. Despite his strong play, the Clippers would lose all 3 games at home and fall 4-2.
The 2014-15 season is one all Rockets fans will remember for the Rockets epic playoff comeback vs Paul’s Clippers, but that series wasn’t lost due to Paul’s play.
After defeating the Spurs in 7 games, including hitting the game winning shot in Game 7 with one second remaining while playing with an injured hamstring. Paul finished that game 9/13 FG with 27 pts, as he willed his team to victory. The cost for him was that the injury was aggravated so much that he would miss the 1st 2 games of the Conference Semis vs Houston. The teams would split the games.
Paul would post double doubles in the final 4 games of the series. In the horrific Game 6 loss, Paul was 10/19 FG for 31 pts, 7 rebounds and 11 assists. He got to the line 11 times (making 10) as he was the sole Clipper not coming undone, but he was not able to rally his teammates. He would post 26 pts and 10 assists in the Game 7 defeat.
In 2015-16, the Clippers would draw the Blazers in Round 1. Paul was off to a tremendous start, averaging over 26 PPG in the first 3 games that saw Los Angeles take a 2-1 series lead. Paul would suffer a broken hand in Game 4, and the Clippers fell apart without him, losing the game and eventually the series 4-2.
Last season, the Clippers would again fall in the first round, this time in a 7 game series to the Utah Jazz. Despite averaging 25 pts and 10 assists in the series, it was Game 7 that haunted Paul. At home, Paul would struggle for the only time in a series he was otherwise masterful in. Paul was 6/19 FG (and only 1/7 3PT) for 13 pts and 9 assists in a 13 point closeout loss.
Paul knew he needed a better cast to break through. Enter James Harden.
Two elite players, both tortured by the ghosts of playoffs past, find themselves united in their quest to conquer their demons.
After a season in which Paul and Harden combined to lead the Rockets to a franchise record 65 wins, their long predicted showdown with Golden State has finally arrived. This is the moment that they have been waiting for all season, the culmination of their season’s work.
The Western Conference Finals is where they seek redemption.
Their play will determine if its salvation or damnation.
Patrick Creighton hosts “Late Hits” weeknights 7-9p on ESPN 97.5 Houston; “Straight Heat” weeknights 9p-12a and “Nate & Creight” Sun 12-5p on SB Nation Radio/SportsMap94.1 Houston. Follow him on Twitter: @pcreighton1