Here's what I am going to do. I am going to take James Harden at his word. I'd rather not believe that an NBA MVP candidate is capable of having a game that would make the average pick-up player take his ball, go home, and stuff it deep in the closet for the next 6-8 months. However, I simply have to assume that he was - indeed - "good" because if there was ever a time to admit that he was "bad" it was following an effort that had people legitimately considering the possibility that a professional athlete was drugged prior to a playoff game. Nothing can take away from a transformative season that no one - sans Mike D'Antoni - saw coming, but I hope to hear that Harden was dealing with some type of mental of physical ailment just so I don't have to question whether or not the last 90 or so games were the world's most impressive facade.
Now, I don't want to make it sound like great players aren't vulnerable to putrid performances under pressure nor am I at liberty to start throwing the Q-word around. Gregg Popovich is a basketball genius and a beautiful defensive mind so if there was someone to put the shackles on James Harden then it was him. Still - assuming Gregg Popovich is not a basketball wizard that can hypnotize otherworldly athletes with his stare and blink them out of their ball security - the most concerning part about James Harden's lethargically absentminded play last night is that it's something we've seen before.
Flashback to 2015 when the Rockets looked like their season was cooked in Game 6 against the Clippers. Do you remember where the fearless beard was while Josh Smith (yup, that Josh Smith) led the most unlikely comeback in NBA history? The picture might be painted differently in retrospect, but he was sulking on the bench as someone who was completely and utterly resigned to defeat. How about 2016 when James Harden looked to be literally napping near the baseline while the Golden State Warriors ran circles around the least deserving 8 seed in recent memory? Consider that we watched one of the best scorers of all time match the shot total of Clint fucking Capela and commit 3x as many turnovers as he had made field goals in an elimination game, and it's tough to ignore the trend forming. I don't want to say that James Harden dips out of dodge faster than someone that sees an old, outgoing classmate walking down the street towards them when he runs into adversity, but it's certainly beginning to look that way. The last three times his season has been in jeopardy he has done everything in his power to make sure his extended vacation time was not.
Things appeared different this year. With the way he was sharing the ball and leading his team he looked like someone that had turned the corner and left his loser mentality in the rearview. Maybe James Harden was hurt. Maybe he was sick. Maybe basketball playing aliens stole his talent. Maybe one laughable game that would have had the coach in 'Blue Chips' confidently accusing him of shaving points was simply an untimely anomaly. Let's hope it was one of those scenarios, because the alternative is that James Harden gave up against a Spurs team that was without it's best player/most intimidating defender and that his old habits made the Rockets' unforeseen championship run die hard.