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In Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, James Harden turned in the playoff performance of his career to help his Houston Rockets stave off elimination. In Game 5, though, the Rockets' superstar made the wrong kind of history.
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Harden, one of the sport's most talented ball-handlers and playmakers, committed an almost unthinkable 13 turnovers in Houston's season-ending loss to the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday. That sets a new NBA record for most cough-ups in a single playoff game. Former New Jersey Nets guard John Williamson held the previous high-water mark, giving it away 11 times in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in a first-round playoff game back in 1979.
He became the first player to turn the ball over more than 10 times in a playoff game since ... himself, in Game 4 of Houston's 2013 first-round playoff series against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Only five other players in the last 30 years have reached double-digit turnovers in a playoff game — LeBron James (twice), Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Penny Hardaway and Kevin Johnson. (At least Harden's in excellent company, I guess.)
"It's tough to lose like this, especially on myself — I put so much pressure on myself to be really good every single night," Harden told reporters after the game. "And in some cases, you're not going to do that. You're not going to be good. Tonight was a case."
Harden set the grim mark with 7:18 remaining in the fourth quarter while trying to capitalize on a Warriors miss by pushing the ball down the floor in transition, only to lose the handle as he drove to the paint:
Harden's disappointment after the miscue was unmistakable and, of course, understandable.
This was a career year for the bearded baller, one that saw him lead the league in total minutes, total points and free throws made and attempted, and finish second in the NBA in scoring with a career-high 27.4 points per game. He made his third straight All-Star appearance, earned his second consecutive First-Team All-NBA berth and finished second in Most Valuable Player voting to Warriors superstar Stephen Curry after carrying a Houston club plagued all season long by injuries to key contributors to its first division championship and highest win total since Hakeem Olajuwon's heyday.
As he prepared to help lead Team USA to a gold medal at last summer's FIBA World Cup, Harden made it clear that he believed himself to be "the best all-around basketball player in the NBA," then did his damnedest to back up that big talk. He took on an even bigger offensive role after Chandler Parsons joined the Dallas Mavericks in free agency, held himself more accountable defensively, and came through with monster performances in beating the Dallas Mavericks, finishing off a remarkable comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers, battling the Warriors to a near-standstill in Games 1 and 2 in Oakland and avoiding a sweep back in Houston.
"Look, James didn't play well, but as I've said all year long, we don't win the division, we don't win 56 games, we don't have home court, we don't beat the Clippers [on our] home court in Game 7 if it wasn't for how James played all year long," Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said after the loss.
For a season this good to have an ending this bad ... well, it was pretty damn mind-boggling.
"He had a tough go tonight," McHale said. "There's just, you know, nothing else you can say about it, man. Sometimes you go out there, and you're trying your best, and things just don't work out."
Harden's final turnover, unlucky No. 13, came in the closing minute of the game, when he unceremoniously dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds:
It put an ignominious end to a galling night that barely featured more points (14) than turnovers, that saw him miss nine of his 11 field-goal attempts, and that, just moments before, had been well punctuated by a depressing airball on a deep 3-point try:
There are some — OK, in the basketball social media world, there are many — who will chalk Harden's nightmare performance up to a curse laid down by an independent rapper with a gift for dance crazes, tweet-signing and, clearly, self-promotion. But there were also tangible elements contributing to his turnovers on Wednesday ... starting, of course, with the Warriors' defense.
"You know, we had a lot of turnovers up high on the floor again, led to runouts," McHale said after his team committed 20 turnovers that led to 31 Warrior points. "[...] We didn't move the ball the way we needed to again tonight. We got a little stagnant. We didn't cut and advance and attack the way we had to against this team. But, you know, give them credit. They have a lot of guys that they can switch stuff [with] and they've been a good, solid defensive team all year long."
While multiple defenders saw time on Harden over the course of the five-game series, most notably shooting guard Klay Thompson and small forward Harrison Barnes, it was the Warriors' valuable veteran reserve swingman who saw the bulk of the Harden assignment on Wednesday, and did a whale of a job with it.
"Andre Iguodala might have had the greatest six-point game I've ever seen in my life," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr after the game. "We put him on James a lot tonight. We felt like that was ultimately the best matchup. He's played him some during the series. But James is a brilliant player, so difficult to stop, and Andre is as smart a defensive player as I've ever seen. He reminds me of Scottie Pippen. I thought Andre's defense on James was absolutely brilliant, and really the key to the whole game."
Harden, for his part, attributed his struggles less to a one-on-one matchup and more to an inability to make plays once he made his way into the paint and found himself surrounded.
"You know, [Iguodala's] long, long and athletic, but ... just the crowd," he said. "Just trying to play in the crowd, trying to do a little bit too much and turned the basketball over and gave them easy opportunities in transition. It is what it is."
And what it is, unfortunately for Rockets fans, is a sour end to a successful season. Harden hopes, though, that he can take something positive from it as he heads into the offseason.
"Just valuing possessions in the postseason," Harden replied when asked what he'll take away from this five-game defeat, and his Game 5 performance in particular. "You know, it's tough. Like I said, the first two games, you take away some of those possessions that we gave away, and it's a different series. Just valuing the ball a lot more, especially if I'm going to be doing a lot of ball-handling. Making sure that I'm not giving away easy baskets.
"Tonight's just another case for myself. Thirteen turnovers is unacceptable."
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