Has James Harden Finally Found His Playoff Mojo for the Houston Rockets?
James Harden can breathe a huge sigh of relief.
In his third year as the top banana on the Houston Rockets, he finally played some top-notch playoff basketball in the first round and carried his team through to the other side. Harden and the Rockets fell in six games to the Oklahoma City Thunder in his first year with the Rockets in 2012-13, then lost to the under-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in 2013-14. With last night's 103-94 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the Rockets took the series 4-1 and will now get some rest before their Western Conference Semi-Finals matchup with either the San Antonio Spurs or the Los Angeles Clippers.
During Harden's three regular seasons with the Rockets, he's transcended from being a solid sixth man with his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the level of NBA superstar. He put up such ridiculous numbers this season --while leading a very depleted Rockets team to an arguably overachieving 56-26 record and their first division title in over two decades -- that he's a top-two MVP candidate with the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry.
Just look at his ridiculous stat lines from the last three regular seasons:
Those are clearly the numbers of a guy figuring it out at the highest level. Despite playing fewer minutes per game this year than the two previous campaigns, Harden still managed to up his averages in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks to career highs. He was also able to jack his already impressive Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48) rate up into top-four NBA levels at 26.7 and .265, respectively.
Until this year, however, he wasn't quite carrying his regular season success over into the playoffs. Look at the difference between his regular season and playoff numbers in years one and two.
Year One (2012-13)
As you can see, Harden may have upped his minutes, rebounding, and scoring in the 2013 playoffs, but his efficiency and passing took major hits. As a result, his PER and WS/48 plummeted and his lack of efficiency played a big part in costing his team the series.
Year Two (2013-14)
One again, Harden's minutes went way up in the playoffs, but this time his total lack of efficiency unequivocally buried his team. Also, yet again, his points went up and his assists went down.
This Year (2014-15)
This year, "regular season" Harden and "playoff" Harden were practically one and the same. The minutes, scoring, and assisting were almost identical in the Rockets' first-round series against the Mavericks as during the regular season, and his efficiency actually went up. It looks like Harden has finally found that extra playoff gear that all the greats seem to have.
Because of his increased efficiency, Harden didn't need to be on the floor nearly as much as previous years. Against Dallas, he averaged a whopping 7.8 fewer minutes per game than last year in the first round against Portland.
He even managed to score more (28.4 points per game compared to 26.8 last year), while shooting way less (17.2 field goal and 6.2 three-point attempts per game this year, compared to 22.2 and 9.0 respectively in 2014). That was all thanks to an increase in True Shooting Percentage (weighted twos, threes, and free throws) from 51.9% last year to a playoff-leading 65.2% this time around, and a game-changing .605 free throw rate in 2015 (freebies per field goal attempt), up from last year's .376.
And just how far could a more efficient, engaged, and rested Harden who gets to the line a ton and sets up his teammates en masse take the Houston Rockets? Unfortunately, our projections currently only have them at 39.85% to win the next round, 10.36% to win the Western Conference Finals, and 5.22% to win it all. The San Antonio Spurs, who have a 73.16% chance to finish off the Los Angeles Clippers with their current 3-2 series lead, will be favored in the next round, should they manage to advance (as will the Clippers, if they pull off a miracle and beat the Spurs two games in a row).
But for now, James Harden and the Houston Rockets are onto the second round for the first time since coming together three years ago, and that's worth something, regardless of how the rest of the playoffs play out. Harden has found a way to transfer his MVP-level of play from the regular season to the postseason and -- with the series win against the Mavericks -- he's gotten his team further than they've been in six years. They'll have their hands full against the Spurs or Clippers in the next round, but they have clearly taken a step up and in the right direction.
And with that, there's finally a reason to "fear the beard" in the playoffs.