These are, to put it mildly, trying times for the Houston Rockets. They've found themselves utterly unable to stop, or even appreciably slow down, Portland Trail Blazers All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who has stepped into the spotlight fresh-dipped in flames and become the breakout star of the opening round of the 2014 playoffs by averaging — averaging! — 44.5 points and 13 rebounds in 40.5 minutes per game in staking Rip City's finest to a commanding 2-0 lead with the series heading back to the Pacific Northwest for Friday's Game 3. It's been sensational to watch Aldridge repeatedly cook the likes of Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Omer Asik — although Asik was most successful against LMA in Game 2, according to SportVU one-on-one defensive matchup data — and make shot after shot from all over the court against all manner of coverages and tough closeouts ... provided, of course, you're not a Rockets fan.
If you do happen to holler for Houston, though, you're probably a bit less thrilled at the offensive performance put forth by James Harden. The All-Star shooting guard has struggled mightily against the defense of (mostly) Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, making just 14 of his 47 shots (29.8 percent) through the postseason's first two games, including a woeful 5 for 19 mark (26.3 percent) from 3-point range. When you've just lost two games on your home court to fall into an 0-2 hole against an unconscious opponent, such struggles become magnified, and the increased scrutiny can lead to shortened tempers amid direct questioning. That appears to be what happened with Harden during his post-game media session in the Rockets' locker room after Wednesday's 112-105 loss.
You can hear the questions from a "national reporter" that started the ball rolling down hill in the clip below, as shared by the great Rockets site ClutchFans:
A bit brusque and bristly, sure, but nothing too spicy. Things apparently escalated a bit after Harden's scrum wrapped up, though, according to Mike Tokito of The Oregonian:
But when his media session in the Rockets opulent locker room ended, Harden went back at the reporter, asking if he had ever seen a player not play well before. The reporter answered that the struggle seemed unusual for Harden and was coming on a major stage, the playoffs.
The two went back and forth for a while, with Harden asking the reporter if he’d ever seen a basketball game before, then demanding to know whom the reporter was. The exchange got testy enough that team officials stepped in to usher Harden out.
As he left the room, Harden called the reporter “weirdo.”
Here's ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh with a bit more detail on the aftermath of the back-and-forth:
The interview session moved on, Harden calmly answered additional questions from other reporters. The Rockets' line of flat-screen TVs scrolled through the team's statistical ranks on the season, including their defensive efficiency rank of 13th. Harden focused on the Rockets' defense as their downfall in Game 2.
"I'm not worried about my offense, I'm worried about our defense — our defense as a team," Harden said.
A few minutes later, the questions stopped coming, but not before Harden, evidently still aggravated, circled back and spun the questioning to the aforementioned reporter, taking issue with his basketball credibility.
"You've never seen someone shoot 29 percent in two games? You must not watch basketball."
The longtime reporter responded that he'd watching basketball longer than Harden had been alive. And that Harden should be held to a higher standard because he is All-NBA.
"Weirdo," Harden said, before walking out of the room once Houston's PR staff stepped in.
First, let's acknowledge just how ludicrous it is that a guy whose chosen facial hair has inspired abstract art ... who described himself and his sense of style as "weird and funky" for GQ two years back ... who's out here dapping up invisible teammates and cutting fake R&B records ... and who got caught doing this in a Rockets huddle:
... would call someone else out as a weirdo.
Moving on: The media member with whom Harden tangled was later identified as Fran Blinebury of NBA.com, a former president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association who covered the Rockets as a beat writer and later columnist for the Houston Chronicle for decades, from the rise of the Ralph Sampson-Hakeem Olajuwon (or, then, Akeem Olajuwon) Twin Towers lineup through the back-to-back titles of the mid-1990s, from the arrival and ascent of Yao Ming through the unfulfilled promise of his pairing with Tracy McGrady, and from the start of Daryl Morey's reign through 2009, when he made the move from the Chronicle to NBA.com. Here's his post-Game 2 story on how badly the Rockets need Harden to get it going.
That Harden called a reporter a not-so-nice word in and of itself isn't that big a deal, although as the ClutchFans clip shows, the nature of the questioning wasn't exactly bomb-throwing or inflammatory; this was just Blinebury doing his job to write on what's clearly the biggest non-Aldridge story in the series. What it does lay bare, however, is just how frustrated Harden's become with his inability to find his rhythm after missing 20 shots in Game 1 and following that up with another 13 misses in Game 2 — "the most he has ever missed in a two-game span in his career," according to Haberstroh.
Perhaps most indicative of Harden's struggles: he's seen his free-throw rate (how many freebies you shoot per field-goal attempt taken) cut nearly in half from the regular season, which stands to reason, since he's attempting a far lower share of his shots in the paint (34 percent through two games) than he did during the regular season (41.4 percent), with a drop of just over 10 percent in frequency of attempts directly at the rim. A version of Harden that isn't getting to the rim at will and drawing fouls in droves is a substantially less effective version than the one who averaged 25.4 points per game during the regular season; if he's not carving up defenses and scoring enough to outstrip what he gleefully gives away on the other end, his minutes can swing from problematic for the opposition to problematic for the Rockets.
The more problematic those minutes, and that lack of production, becomes for the Rockets, the more problematic this will all become for Harden, whose regular-season accolades could start to become overshadowed by a postseason résumé that includes his disappointing five-game run in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 2012 Finals loss to the Miami Heat and a sub-40-percent turn in Houston's opening-round loss to Oklahoma City last year. The transition from "up-and-coming rising star learning how to be the man" to "high-scoring statistical darling who hasn't won anything" can happen quicker than a Eurostep, and if Harden doesn't find a way to get on track, it could come for him so soon as to feel sudden.
That sort of mounting pressure — especially ahead of a game that, if it goes Portland's way, would put Houston in a hole from which no team in NBA history has ever recovered in 108 tries — will make a guy feel a little antsy and grouchy. But that's no reason not to be nice, James. Us weirdos have to stick together, you know?
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