What happened to James Harden in Game 6?
When was the last time in NBA playoff history that a team failed to cover the point spread by 48 points? A home team? In a must-win Game 6? When their opponent's No. 1 player was sidelined with an injury? Anyone know when that was?
Probably not because--and this is a guess, but an educated one--it has never happened until the San Antonio Spurs beat the Houston Rockets 114-75 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Houston was originally favored by six points, but when it was announced that morning that the Spurs Kawhi Leonard would not play, the line jumped three points to Houston -9. The Spurs were already without the services of Tony Parker, so it appeared as if the Rockets would easily win Game 6 at home to force a Game 7 in San Antonio.
And then the game was played...
The Rockets were supposed to be led to victory by their MVP-candidate guard James Harden who averaged 29.1 points per game during the regular season, second best in the NBA. But here in Game 6, Harden shot 2 for 11 from the floor, scoring 10 points while adding seven assists and three rebounds--all well below his 2016-17 playoff average. He also turned the ball over six times. But the numbers don't tell the full story on this night. Harden seemed disinterested the entire game. He didn't attempt a shot until the second quarter while routinely passing up shooting opportunities and shirking his defensive duties. It seemed as if Harden instantly gave up on the game, so, too, did the rest of the Rockets.
The question is why? What happened to Harden on this night?
ESPN's talking heads Max Kellerman and Stephen A Smith had their ideas...
Note (if you bother to watch this clip, I don't blame you if you don't) that Kellerman basically excuses Harden for his poor play, almost claiming that asking him to try would've been foolish. Meanwhile a rather calm Stephen A wonders aloud if Harden was on drugs--seriously--drugs!
But what did Harden himself have to say of his performance?
To sum up his post-game thoughts, Harden and the team simply didn't have any "rhythm." That was it. No rhythm. For a basketball team that had played over 90 games by this point in the season, suddenly that group couldn't function as a unit when it was perhaps most needed.
So was Harden tired? Not by his admission. And nor should he have been. He's a young professional athlete. They aren't playing back-to-back games in the playoffs, so he had plenty time to recoup. And to be honest, I know health care professional--NPs, RNs, MDs--who put in longer, harder hours than Harden has ever been called on to perform, and done so without taking a day or night off while at work.
Was Harden injured? Again, he never claimed to be. And writing this 48 hours since the game, nothing has come to light saying he was hiding an injury.
Was the Spurs' defense in shut-down mode? Watch the highlights of Harden's play (see above) and ask yourself if that looked like great defense that was affecting his play. I would say no, it doesn't look like an extra-special effort put forth by the Spurs to generate that result. Harden was doing most of the Spurs' work for them which, to me, leads to one of three possible explanations for Harden's game--
Either he (a) choked, (b), had a "bad game," or (c) tanked it. As for choices "a" and "b," I'm not buying it. It didn't look like nerves affecting his game, and while it certainly was a "bad game," it was beyond bad. Horrible enough that I'm not nearly alone in questioning what exactly happened. All that leaves is choice "c"--Harden tanked this game (or Stephen A was right for once and Harden was drugged).
So why would Harden tank it? That's the million dollar question. Did gamblers or the mafia get to him? Most would say, "that's impossible" especially given his $28-million-a-year salary. But it's not impossible, it's just unlikely (blackmail can work on anyone). What about the NBA? Could the league's unseen hand have reached down and gotten Harden to take a night off? Perhaps, but why would the NBA not want a Rockets v. Spurs Game 7? Good question. But again, it's only doubtful the NBA would take this result over a sure Game 7, not impossible, especially given that we're all looking down the barrel at an inevitable Warriors v. Cavs Finals rematch yet again.
The simple truth is I can't say with any certainty that someone got to James Harden to cause him to underplay so much in Game 6. Typically, when a player is shaving points/taking a dive, it's not blatantly obvious he's doing so. But at the same time, I've seen plenty of fixed soccer and tennis matches where it has undoubtedly been fixed and the players are clearly playing roles to ensure the needed outcome. Harden may just be a horrible actor.
But I don't believe I'm wrong in questioning his play and wondering aloud if he flat-out tanked this game, even if his reasons were nothing more than selfish. To simply write this off as a "bad game" as a vast majority of the sports media world did--and will continue to do, unless the game's completely forgotten in week's time (which is highly likely)--is wrong. This was more than just a "bad game." It was something else. But what that was exactly may never be truly known.
And just to prove that he wasn't too distraught over his performance in Game 6, Harden went and partied in at least two clubs that night. Oh, and before you completely rule out Harden being above tanking a game for some nefarious reasons, check out this story about his potential ties to a robbery and "beatdown" of Moses Malone Jr.