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Houston Rockets

Will this be the year that Houston Rockets guard James Harden answers his playoff demons?

James Harden is already one of the greatest shooting guards the NBA has ever seen. Tune in on any given night to see him play, and he may just do something historic.

From 40-point triple-doubles to being the only player in league history to record at 2,000 points, 900 assists and 600 rebounds in a single season, Harden is building a first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

But there's one thing missing on his resume - a championship.

Not every Hall of Famer is a champion. Many fail at reaching their ultimate goal. But if Harden wants to be mentioned with the all-time great two guards, a ring is a must - and he knows it.

"I still haven't accomplished half of what I want to accomplish," Harden told Bleacher Report in September. "Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won't forget.

"And obviously, we all remember the Kobe [Bryants] and the [Michael] Jordans and the [Dwyane] Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game."

The narrative around Harden in the playoffs has always been that he's worn down after carrying his team in an iso-heavy offence for an entire season. But how much of that is true? Could it be that Harden is just going against tough defences who, after seeing him for a week straight, have figured him out? Or is he truly just gassing out when his teams need him the most?

When you look at Harden's numbers through the years, they tell an interesting story. In 2017-18 - the season he won MVP - Harden was terrific, leading the league in scoring and efficiency, but his playoff numbers saw a noticeable drop in production and efficiency, which makes you wonder if he had the legs to finish the year strong.

MORE: Fact or fiction: Playoffs, perceptions and the Houston Rockets

Looking deeper into the matter, the decline started well before the postseason even began.

Harden's production began to decline post-All-Star. In 22 games after All-Star Weekend, Harden saw drops in points, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage. The 3-point percentage in particular could be a result of tired legs finally catching up to him.

James Harden 2017-18 Pre/Post All-Star stats
GP MIN PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV
Pre All-Star 50 35.8 31.3 44.8 38.4 86.5 5.1 9.0 4.2
Post All-Star 22 34.7 28.5 45.4 31.9 84.4 6.1 8.2 4.7

In 2018-19, Harden started the season strong again, but after the All-Star break there was once again a slight decline in his scoring and 3-point percentage, which continued on into the playoffs.

Should the season return in mid-July, as it's currently being reported, Harden and the Rockets will have had close to 18 weeks since their last game in mid-March - almost the equivalent of an entire NBA offseason. The unexpected break may have come at the right time for the Beard and it may have simultaneously eliminated the single biggest excuse he's had for poor playoff performances in the past.

This season was trending in the same direction, for what it's worth. After exploding out the gates, Harden was seeing his number dip below his standards following the All-Star break.

James Harden 2019-20 Pre/Post All-Star stats
GP MIN PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV
Pre All-Star 51 37.1 35.3 43.7 35.8 86.9 6.5 7.3 4.5
Post All-Star 10 35.1 29.6 42.4 32.2 81.3 5.5 7.6 4.4

The month of March, albeit in only five games due to the stoppage of play, was Harden's worst from a production standpoint. He shot just 37.4 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from the perimeter while averaging 28.2 points per game - a stark contrast from the month of December in which he averaged 37.3 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent from 3-point range.

The emergence of Russell Westbrook might have had something to do with Harden's numbers declining, but the shooting percentage might lead you to believe that Harden's legs were getting ready to fail him for the third straight playoffs.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with rest or his body breaking down on him in mid-May. Maybe his opponents have something to do with it.

Is it fatigue or matchup?

Over his last two playoff runs, Harden has seen some of the best defences the league has to offer, and as each series has progressed, the Beard's numbers have declined.

After going through a damaged Minnesota Timberwolves squad in round one in 2018, Harden ran into the league's best defensive team in Utah. His first two games were up to his standards but the last three of the series left a lot to be desired.

James Harden 2018 playoffs stats vs Utah Jazz
MIN PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV
Games 1-2 36.7 36.5 43.8 40.9 91.7 7.0 9.0 2.5
Games 3-5 33.8 22.3 37.7 18.2 89.5 4.0 6.3 4.0

In the Conference Finals against the Warriors, Harden came out firing in Game 1 but struggled to find any sort of efficiency once Golden State made its adjustments.

James Harden 2018 playoff stats vs Warriors
MIN PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV
Game 1 35:08 41.0 58.3 55.6 80.0 4.0 7.0 4.0
Game 2-7 38.7 26.7 38.6 20.3 90.5 5.8 5.8 5.0

The trend continued last postseason. After torching the Jazz in the first two games of their first-round series, Harden really struggled in the last three.

James Harden 2019 playoff stats vs Utah Jazz
MIN PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV
Games 1-2 33.1 30.5 44.0 43.5 87.5 10.5 10.0 5.5
Games 3-5 38.6 26.0 32.3 29.7 86.2 4.3 6.7 5.7

Scouting the Rockets in the regular season when you see them once and you're on to the next game is one thing, but scouting them in the playoffs is another. Having the ability to make adjustments between games and get immediate results is a luxury teams just don't have in an 82-game season. Could it be that opponents get better at defending Harden with more reps and more time to study his tendencies? It's not crazy to think that the source of Harden's decline in the playoffs aren't his tired legs but more prepared defences who are now focused on slowing him down.

Whatever the case may be, Harden wil likely need to win a championship at some point to cement himself as an all-time great. Over the last two seasons he's had teams that were built to win a championship but have unfortunately run into one of the greatest teams of all time.

While the Rockets aren't clear cut favourites to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy this year, it probably wouldn't shock anyone to see Houston get hot and be the team to stand atop the mountain at the end of this wild season. For them to do that, though, they'll need Harden to be Harden. He needs to be the efficient point-scoring menace that he is in the regular season for 16 wins in the playoffs.

He'll never have more rest heading into a playoff run than he will this year. His body should be rejuvenated by that. His team's style lends itself to unpredictability more than ever before with Westbrook acting as the team's centre.

Everything is in line for Harden to go out and prove to the world that he is indeed the best shooting guard the game has to offer right now.

Failure to do so won't have anyone asking any more questions about where we should place James Harden in the pantheon of greatness. We'll have our answer.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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