NBA playoffs 2017: James Harden faded away when Rockets needed him to step up

James Harden was on the court in body for the Rockets on Thursday night. In mind and heart? Didn’t look like it.

Inexplicably, inexcusably, he was horrible in an elimination game. Worse, he didn’t go down swinging. He attempted two shots in the first half of Houston’s 114-75 Game 6 loss to the Spurs. He was indecisive with the ball and got into early foul trouble. He basically blended into the red seats of Houston’s Toyota Center.

MORE: Game 6 stats, highlights

It will be much easier for Harden if it later comes out he was limited by a legit injury or illness. (Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni mentioned Harden had been battling a cold, but that simply isn’t enough to explain his extreme level of passiveness.) If he was healthy and still played like this?

If he stunk like that while healthy, then that’s career-damaging.

Harden’s play had one TV bloviator questioning whether Harden was high. The same bloviator cited anonymous Hall of Famers who said Harden quit on his team. “Quit” is not a word anyone wants attached to their name, but darned if it didn’t look that way with Harden after the Rockets fell behind big in the first half. On the outside, Harden stayed quite chill as his team’s season was ending.

MORE: Harden vows to make Rockets better

Harden chose to credit the Spurs when he was asked if he considered being more assertive to shake his funk.

“Yeah, but they did a really good job of crowding strong bodies, their bigs at the rim, things like that,” he said. “I couldn’t really get in a rhythm, especially to the basket. (Spurs center) Pau (Gasol) did a really good job of using his length at the rim, so hats off to them.”

Yeah, hats off to the Spurs for guarding the perimeter and forcing Harden and others to drive, but that’s not a good enough reason for him to be a non-factor.

MORE: Internet roasts Harden after Game 6 fold

He was fourth in the NBA in usage percentage this season. He was the Rockets’ primary scorer and facilitator. For better or worse, he needed to push, to at least be his typical self. A team’s highest-volume shooter needs to get his shots in the biggest game of the year. He had just 11 attempts Thursday. He made two.

When he disappeared, his teammates followed. Trevor Ariza (20) and Clint Capela (15) were Houston’s leading scorers. Harden (10) was the only other Rocket in double figures.

For a lot of the first half he had as many turnovers as points (five). He can throw bouquets at the Spurs for doing that to him, but the thorny issue of him being passive and/or unable to make adjustments on the fly remains.

This is the same Harden who destroyed the Spurs as the Thunder’s second-leading scorer in the 2012 Western Conference finals. That makes his Game 6 no-show even more confounding. We have seen Harden at full MVP capacity, and we know he’s capable of much more than this

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