The narrative, fair or not, is out there.
He dominates in the regular season. He disappoints in the postseason — at least, when it matters most.
James Harden has been accused of it. And surely he has heard it. This year he gets to change it — a mission that started in earnest Saturday with Game 1 against the Bucks in an Eastern Conference semifinal that feels more befitting an NBA Finals.
“I’ve run into some very, very good teams, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been short,” Harden said of his scrutinized playoff failures throughout the years.
“[The Bucks] have had their core and then they added some really good pieces, which is why they’ve been one of the best teams all year. As you look at our roster, we’re elite, too. It’s going to be a showdown. I’m more than confident going into this postseason.”
Harden’s confidence is warranted. Adding Harden to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving made the Nets the betting favorite to win the title. While Durant and Irving already have three rings between them, Harden has none.
Over the years, Harden has been agonizingly close to a championship. Six times, his team has been eliminated by the eventual champion. In two others, his club fell to juggernaut Warriors teams that reached the Finals.
In Greek mythology, Tantalus was cursed to go thirsty and hungry though standing in a pool of water under a fruit tree with low branches — but just high enough he could never reach them. Surely Harden would sympathize. He’d also say this season will be different.
“Every year your plan is to win a championship — that’s every player’s dream and mindset every single year. Obviously in reality it’s only a handful of teams that have an opportunity, and we’re one of those teams,” Harden said. “So, the excitement is there, but the focus is the most important thing.
“Obviously, we all are excited and locked-in, but we just have to keep reiterating it and reiterating it. We have to keep making sure we know how important detail is and how important each possession is. … I think our team will be really, really good, because obviously offensively we’re great. We just got to have some consistency.”
Harden has consistently starred in the regular season and struggled when it mattered the most. He’s averaging 23.8 points on 38 percent shooting — 25 percent from deep — and 6.7 turnovers in his last six elimination games.
There was Game 5 of the Rockets’ 2017 Western Conference semifinal when, with the series tied 2-2, he had a potential tying 3-pointer blocked by the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili as time expired in overtime.
Houston dealt for Chris Paul that offseason, and enjoying a star running mate, Harden won the MVP Award. But Paul got hurt in Game 5 of the conference finals, and Harden shot just 2-for-13 from deep in Game 7. The Rockets bricked 27 straight 3s and blew a 12-point lead in a loss to the Warriors.
The next season, Harden averaged a staggering 36.1 points — the most since Michael Jordan in 1987 — but the Rockets lost in the playoffs to the Warriors for the fourth time in five years. And dealing Paul for Russell Westbrook before last season ended in Houston’s postseason ouster at the hands of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers.
Harden had watched as Durant bolted Oklahoma City and won a pair of rings with Golden State. Convinced that his Rockets team had peaked, Harden forced his way out earlier this season to join Durant and Irving. And he’s confident the Nets — for which that trio has played together just eight times in the regular season and five in the playoffs entering Game 1 — hasn’t peaked yet.
“We haven’t reached that point because we haven’t been together for a long time. So our goal individually and for a team is to continue to get better every day,” said Harden, convinced that’s still to come for the Nets.
“Yeah, of course. Especially when we get stops — multiple stops in a row and we go out and we get layups and 3s, it’s very difficult to beat us.”
That’s the goal.
John Elway and Jason Kidd got their first titles at 37. Tantalus never got his fruit, but this might be the best shot for Harden to finally earn his ring.