Wednesday, June 27, 2012

OKC's James Harden Chokes in Finals

The main reason the Oklahoma City Thunder lost the NBA crown to the Miami Heat? That's easy. Point the finger at James Harden. Quite simply, he choked. How else can you say it?

OKC needed him and Harden, for the most part, was rattled and played badly. Named Sixth Man of the Year, he averaged 16.8 points a game during the season and belongs in the lower half of the list of the NBA's top 20 players. Without him, OKC doesn't whip the seemingly unbeatable San Antonio Spurs to reach the Finals. The team needed that kind of high-level performance from him in the Finals, but didn't get it, or anything close to it.

In most of the five Finals games, the Thunder's booming big three--Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden--was just the big two. Word is leaking out,  from sources close to two of the players, that Harden, normally a team player, was in me-me mode, sulking because he wasn't getting the ball enough. The word was that Harden didn't appreciate Westbrook's ball-hogging and, in the locker room, made that very clear.

When the media wasn't around, report the sources, things got ugly. Harden was grumbling and grousing and, in general, acting like a jerk. OKC 's two veterans with NBA Championship rings, Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins, tried to soothe Harden and change his sullen attitude. But it didn't work. Harden wouldn't listen. Feeling he was frozen out of the offense, Harden was in a funk and played like it most of the time.

The Thunder won the first game---its lone victory--despite Harden being MIA. OKC really needed him in that crucial fourth game, but Harden played lousy on offense, scoring just 8 points, on 2 for 10 shooting. Also in the debit column, he had four turnovers and was in foul trouble by the third quarter. Though he did lead the team in rebounds, with 10, that wasn't much help. OKC needed his offense and it wasn't there.

There was a reason Harden became less of a factor in the OKC offense in the Finals. He kept missing open shots, even short ones. Why keep passing the ball to someone who's clanking shots? On big stage, under pressure, Harden simply didn't deliver.

In Harden's defense, you can single out something that, quite possibly, took him out of his game. He had the misfortune of being handed an impossible defensive assignment--LeBron James. For 6-5, 220-pound Harden it was a nightmare trying to stop 6-8, 260-pound James. You could say he expended so much energy on defending James that, when Harden was on offense, he was often running on empty.

The perception, though, is that Harden choked. His surly attitude in the bleak Finals didn't help. Harden's behavior, say the sources, left a sour taste in his teammates' mouths. They can forgive his performance but not his attitude. Come next season, he has some major repair work to do.