James Harden's disappearing act has everyone, including Popovich, baffled

HOUSTON -- Gregg Popovich didn't know what to say. Neither did Mike D'Antoni. Nor did any of the Rockets, or any of the media, or really, any of the Spurs.

What could you say after San Antonio's 114-75 (not a typo) victory over the Rockets in Game 6 to advance to the Western Conference finals? 

Well, you can start with this, if nothing else: James Harden failed, in an obscene and epic way commonly reserved for films about financial disasters. 

Say what you want about Russell Westbrook's play style, efficiency or impact, but he went down swinging against a better team in the Rockets. Against the Spurs, Harden drifted away with a whisper. He did not attempt a field goal, not one, in the first 12 minutes Thursday. He finished with 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting, with seven assists and six turnovers and fouled out in 37 minutes while the Rockets were outscored by 28 with him on the court. 

He was at once sloppy and passive. He was inefficient and lazy. He was checked out and cost his team. It was arguably the worst performance by an MVP candidate in recent history, drawing comparisons to Kobe Bryant's 2006 pout-fest vs. the Suns and LeBron James' 2011 meltdown vs. the Mavericks

After the game, Harden at least came to the podium and faced the music. 

"You have to take it for what it is," Harden said. "Everything falls on my shoulders. I take responsibility for it, both ends of the floor." 

He paused, in a designer white hoodie. 

"You know, it's tough. Especially the way we lost at home for Game 6. It happened, now we move forward."

There were so many outcomes that would have acquitted this terrific Rockets season. A close loss in six games, with Kawhi Leonard out, would have been disappointing, but what are you going to do? They're the Spurs. A Game 7 loss on the road against the Spurs with Leonard, and the season was a success. But to lose this way, in six games, embarrassed at home with the second-worst defeat in franchise history, where your MVP vanishes? 

No wonder D'Antoni was shaken after the game. 

Harden, for his part, also said he was "fine" throughout the series, even when it appeared to not be the case. There was talk of his never fully recovering from an ankle injury suffered months ago, of a hip injury suffered in Game 2, of a cold that has been lingering for, unbelievably, over a month, and even talk of a possible concussion after he was hit in the head in Game 5. 

Neither the Rockets nor Harden have said anything about such an injury occurring and the league takes concussions seriously. It's simply not worth it to risk being discovered trying to hide it. The bigger point is that Harden's performance was so bad, so truly putrid, many jumped to "he must not be 100 percent." 

But Harden played, and if you play as the best player in a game like this, you have to be judged on the results. That's why Harden didn't cop to any injuries. He knows everyone's banged up in the playoffs. He knows the deal, and he knows he failed. 

While many went to that side, even more went the other way. This game has already been and will somehow continue to be regarded as a referendum on Harden's MVP candidacy, his status as a superstar, D'Antoni's value as a coach, Harden's play style and whether it can succeed in a playoff environment, and a condemnation of the entire season, nay, career of Harden. 

It was that bad. 

There's a middle ground in there, but while the hot takes will make streaks across the media sky, there are also some cold truths to deal with. Harden was not able to summon the power, energy or "pop," as he described it, to make the plays he needed to. He walked the ball into pressure, made reckless and lazy passes, flipped the ball up half-heartedly. He inexplicably passed out of open shots and forced ones he shouldn't have. 

Harden said after the game he had no rhythm, but there comes a time when you have to dictate that rhythm. The game is not always going to come to you, even if you're one of the best in the world. The Spurs are moving on because they did not let the game come to them. They went to the game. Without their best player, they ripped the game from the Rockets' hands, stuffed them into a trunk, and drop kicked them into the ocean that is offseason regret. 

There's probably a story behind Harden's performance. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Maybe there's not one, maybe it really is that the Spurs just played better and the Rockets played badly, as so many of the actors in this Rockets tragedy said Thursday night. After all, with Leonard out, with Tony Parker out, on the road, in an elimination game, the Rockets had every advantage to win, the Spurs every reason to lose, and yet, that isn't what happened, and Harden was the biggest reason for that. No amount of points produced, assists, regular-season wins or regular-season awards will erase that. 

All that's left is that question: What happened to James Harden? 

After the game, Harden was asked what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told him in a private conversation on court. Harden said Popovich "didn't know what to say." 

After watching the Rockets and Harden sputter out without so much as a flame to end their season ... what can you? 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

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