James Harden's Game 4 Was the Best Individual Performance of the Playoffs So Far
The Houston Rockets' 35-point Game 3 loss to the Golden State Warriors in Houston was flat out embarrassing, but the Rockets -- as has been the case for most of this season -- refused to just roll over and die.
Down 3-0 and with a mere 1.61% chance of winning the series, according to our algorithms, the Rockets went into a Game 4 that few people expected them to win and made a statement. They won 128-115 in a sheer offensive onslaught (including an NBA record-matching 45-point first quarter), closing the series deficit to 3-1, and sending it back to Golden State for a Game 5.
After coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the last round to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games, this marked the fourth-straight win in an elimination game for the Rockets, making them the first team to do that since the 2006 Phoenix Suns.
To say that this is a resilient team is to put it lightly. They rallied to a 56-26 record this season, despite being without Dwight Howard for exactly half of those games. They came into this year's playoffs down two regular starters in Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, yet they got out of the first round for the first time in the James Harden era by beating the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 and then shocking the Los Angeles Clippers -- a team that we had with a 91.53% chance to advance when they were up 3-1 -- with one of the most improbable comebacks in recent memory.
The source of this team's scrappy, underdog persona is James Harden, this year's runner-up for the Most Valuable Player award. He has battled adversity and lowered expectations for an entire season but continues to defy odds and put up games like last night's absolute gem that fuel his team to victory.
Harden's final box score line last night was statistical porn. He scored 45 very efficient points (including 33 in the second half), hitting 13-for-22 from the field, 7-for-11 from downtown, and 12-for-13 from the free throw line. That's good for a True Shooting Percentage (weighted twos, threes, and freebies) of 81.2%. The Warriors threw 10 different defenders at Harden in the game and he shot 50% or better against every single one he took a shot against (per SportVU).
Seriously, 7-for-11 from deep, all from above the break. And this wasn't even one of them:
It may not have counted, but there's no better sign of how easily Harden was finding the bottom of the basket than that.
Apart from shooting the lights out, Harden added nine boards, five dimes, two steals, and two blocks, while turning the ball over three times. According to Basketball-Reference.com's Game Score stat (a rough measure of a player's overall productivity for a single game), the overall 41.0 that Harden registered last night was not only the best game of this year's playoffs but also of the last three.
With that, he is averaging 28.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.4 blocks per game this postseason, while shooting 44.9% from the field, 39.4% from long range, and 92.7% from the free throw line (a True Shooting Percentage of 63.0%). In this Western Conference Finals series against the Warriors, in particular, he's putting up an even more ridiculous 32.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.3 steals, and 0.8 blocks, with a shooting split of 50.6% from the field, 48.0% from three, and 90.0% from the line (a True Shooting Percentage of 66.3%). Reminder: Golden State had the number one defense in the whole NBA this season.
So, does Harden's inspiring play give the Rockets a chance of making history by being the first team to ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit by beating the Golden State Warriors, a historically amazing team, in four straight games? Can he really drag Houston and their current 3.51% chances of winning this series and do the impossible for the second time in a row?
Almost certainly not. But Harden has gone from being a mediocre playoff performer to a transcendent one in three short years as the star of the Rockets, and that's an undeniable step in the right direction. After two straight years of exiting in the first round, the Rockets made the Western Conference Finals this year -- somewhere that few people originally thought they had any business being. Even if they go down in Game 5 on Wednesday night, it'll be hard to fault them for losing to a Warriors team that might make a list of the best teams of all time if they cash in on the current 75.51% title odds that our algorithms give them.
Win or lose, the Houston Rockets have proven their worth in the 2015 playoffs. With a strong one-two punch of Harden and Howard locked up, a minimum of 17 more games of playoff experience under their belts, and ample cap space at their disposal this summer, the Rockets look ready to shed their "underdog" designation for a "contender" one next season.