Houston Rockets: James Harden faces the biggest test of his career

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets guard James Harden (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Houston Rockets guard James Harden will take top billing for the first-round matchup against OKC for at least a short while. It’s his biggest test yet.

The Houston Rockets are firmly seeded into the playoffs to which it’s finally starting after what has felt like an eternity to get going.  Well, you know, this darn global pandemic has an interesting way of ensuring timelines are altered and there’s no control that we have over it.

But after the eight-game seeding period, the Houston Rockets have firmly locked up a date with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA Playoffs in the tightly wound bubble in Orlando, Fla.

They were able to proficiently secure the 4th seed in the Western Conference after falling to as low as sixth during the course of the season before things shut down back in March but before some recent mishaps, it looked this team was ready to go to win it all.

But the injury bug has struck — Eric Gordon rolled his ankle in practice just before the restart and he’s barely easing his way back and Russell Westbrook is still battling symptoms of his right quad contusion that he sustained recently.

Westbrook will miss a portion of the first round — it’s anyone guess how many games — but any games without Russ in such an important time is going to be detrimental to the Houston Rockets’ success.

Typically they can get by when Russ rests on back-to-back games but this is will be several games in a row and his elite scoring presence yet ability to smoothly position himself in the lane to score is what this team will lack.  He’s like a Union Pacific locomotive coming down the aisle when driving into the paint so that aspect of the Houston Rockets’ offense will be missed.

This means a ton of pressure will be on James Harden to perform admirably in such circumstances and his track record on this hasn’t been all that great.  You guys remember back in the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals where the guy obviously looked like he had run out of gas as the Houston Rockets died a slow, yet painful death to the San Antonio Spurs?

I don’t think that this will happen this time because of the cohesiveness of the role players on this team.  There’s no question Harden will get his and he will be a valuable contributor while Russ is out but it’s up to guys like Gordon, Ben McLemore, Austin Rivers and to a lesser extent, Danuel House to step up for Russ while he’s out.

Harden needs help and I’m afraid that he’s going to command a double-team leaving one of our

guys open to shoot but it’s a matter of those guys are going to knock their shots down.  P.J. Tucker

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could be a guy to emerge because he makes his living with the corner three, ensuring that he knocks them down in the high 40s percentile.

But it will have to also be a collaborative effort on defense in order for these guys to be successful.  The current rendition of this team will never be great at defense but I think they can knuckle down in this finite amount of games and get the job done.

Harden does have the luxury of a four-month break so his legs would be fresher than what they’d normally be toward the end of the season so he might be just fine carrying the load but now is more important than ever for the rest of the supporting cast to step up.

I can’t recall any more important test than this one in his storied career up to his point.  But he can successfully help navigate this team out of the first-round — possibly without Russ while he heals — then he will have successfully passed and gets him ever closer to the goal of winning a championship.

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His status as the second-greatest Houston Rockets’ member to pick up a basketball — as well as future Hall-of-Famer — is absolutely intact but I think it’s the ring that will make him whole as a professional basketball player.  There’s just something with the allure of going to battle with your teammates with blood, sweat, strain and tears all left out on the hardwood to get to that common goal of being the top dog.

Let’s hope for the best and good luck to the Houston Rockets in the first round!