James Harden broke an NBA playoff record for shooting futility in Game 3 vs. the Jazz, missing his first 15 shots over three quarters and change of action, and yet the Houston Rockets, on the road, still found a way to win the game, 104-101, to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.
Winning a road playoff game in Utah is hard enough. Winning a road playoff game in Utah when your best player goes 3 for 20 from the field would seem, on paper, to be impossible. This says a lot about the Rockets. It also says a lot about Harden, who told ESPN in his on-court postgame interview that he had no idea he was 0 for 15 at one point. Listen, I have a hard time believing Harden was utterly unaware that he hadn't connected on a single shot from the field through three quarters, but the three shots he did make, two of which were threes on his way to 14 fourth-quarter points, tell a more important story anyway.
When Harden's teammates needed him most, he was there.
When Harden needed his teammates most, they were also there.
Remember when the Rockets missed 27 straight 3-pointers en route to finishing 7 for 44 from deep in last year's Game 7 loss to the Warriors? Harden was 2 for 13 from three in that game. The rest of the Rockets were 5 for 31. Nobody picked him up. On Saturday, Harden was the exact same 2 for 13 from three, but this time the rest of the Rockets, while not great, chipped in 13 threes, a few of them very timely.
Eric Gordon didn't play well but hit a huge fourth-quarter three to stretch Houston's lead from one to four with 2:32 to play in the game. Austin Rivers and Gerald Green combined to go 5 for 8 from three off the bench. Paul, who didn't play in that Game 7 last season, chipped in 18 points and two 3-pointers. It all added up to just enough.
"Man, I went up to [Harden] in that timeout, and I said, 'get your swag up,'" Paul said in the postgame interview. "He know how we play. We don't look at how many shots you done missed or made. ... You put the work in. That's what you work all summer for. We believe in him like we believe in Gerald [Green] and everybody on our team, and we keep playing and stay the course. Coach puts the utmost confidence in guys to keep shooting ... 'cause at the end of the day, it's win the game."
And win the game, the Rockets did. Largely because of Harden's play in the fourth. Somehow, he still led the Rockets in scoring on a historically bad shooting night, connecting on 14 of 16 free throws for 22 points, and with Utah continuing to deploy some of the flat out wildest defensive tactics anyone has ever seen (they are literally playing defense behind him), Harden is to be commended for his ability to generate offense via the pass with 10 assists. He was patient. Time and again he accepted the free pass into the lane and connected on lobs and kick-outs.
Still, at the end of the day, it's Harden's scoring that carries Houston, and indeed it was a bucket, his last field goal of the game, that wound up erasing the barrage of misfirings that preceded it. There was just over a minute and a half left, and Donovan Mitchell had just trimmed Houston's lead to one with a step-back three. On the ensuing possession, Harden did this:
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a man who had missed his first 15 shots, and had made just 1 of 12 threes to that point, absolutely sticking and pretty much game-winning three with a defender draped on him. That is such a big-time, no-conscience shot there aren't even words for it. Like Paul said, D'Antoni, and really the entire Rockets organization, tells these guys to keep shooting. It's the same thing Nuggets coach Mike Malone told Jamal Murray in Game 2 of Denver's series against the Spurs, when Murray was 0 for 8 heading into the fourth quarter only to finish 8 for 9 in the final frame in leading the Nuggets to a win.
When I was in New Orleans this preseason, Jrue Holiday talked to me about the power of positive speech. He said he didn't really believe in it for a long time, but then he saw the impact on his confidence when coaches began really encouraging him to shoot. Just keep shooting. We believe in you. Even at the professional level with athletes who have spent their entire life cultivating an inner belief that seemingly no outside influence could top, confidence is a fickle thing, and it can stand to be replenished from time to time.
And again, in the Rockets' case, that confidence goes two ways. Yes, Harden's teammates and coaches have confidence in him to come up big when they need him most, but with a team that can step up for him on the worst shooting night of his career, a team that is quietly playing really great defense and can win a game multiple ways, Harden can have confidence that he doesn't always have to save the day. These Rockets can save him once in a while.