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COLUMN: Why James Harden is not the same player in the postseason



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Houston Rockets guard James Harden reacts to an official's call during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks on March 10 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Tribune News Service

The NBA Playoffs are in full swing, and while much is still up for grabs, one thing is certain: Houston Rockets guard James Harden is proving once again why he is not the same player in the playoffs that he is in the regular season.

It is not as if Harden’s play has not been impressive. Throughout the entire regular season, it seemed as though there was no record he couldn't break. Harden's 17 straight games with at least 30 points broke Kobe Bryant’s record for most consecutive games with such a stat line. He has also broken Bryant’s record for most points by a visiting player in Madison Square Garden, putting up 61 points on the struggling New York Knicks.

But what has become an unfortunate asterisk on the Houston Rockets star’s career is his inability to achieve success in the postseason.

Last season, the Rockets had the top seed in the Western Conference and looked as if they could be the team to finally dethrone the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors. Regardless, Harden disappeared when they needed him most. While he still scored 32 points, his inability to lead the team he and Chris Paul were supposed to take to the NBA Finals led to an abysmal shooting display from the from outside the arch — the Rockets went seven-for-44 from three in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season.

Fast forward to this season and the Rockets once again look like a legitimate contender in a stacked Western Conference. Despite finishing fourth in the conference standings, leading to a first round playoff matchup with the fifth-seeded Utah Jazz, the Rockets have gotten off to a quick start. After four games, the Rockets have a three-to-one series lead. Yet if it had not been for a stellar defensive effort from the team combined with clutch rebounding by P.J. Tucker late in Game 3, Utah very well could have stolen a game from Houston.

Harden started off Game 3 0-for-15 — the worst shooting performance to start a playoff game in the past 20 seasons and worst of his career. He went on to shoot 3-for-20 from the field and 2-for-13 from three-point range. For a player who many consider to be a frontrunner to win his second MVP award, those kinds of numbers are alarming — even if it is just the first round.

While it took him time to find his rhythm, he still scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and went 14-for-16 from the free throw line. While it was enough to narrowly get the Rockets past the Jazz in Game 4, that kind of play will not bode well for a team that considers itself a legitimate contender in what has become one of the most competitive Western Conferences in NBA history.

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