4. James Harden
There is a nasty taste left in James Harden’s mouth, that has taken a year to get out.
Harden finished last year’s playoffs with an abysmal 10-point, 2-for-11 performance in Game 6 of the second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs. That game consumed an otherwise strong playoff showing — 28.5 points and 8.5 assists per game.
Harden has typically been good in the playoffs. He has stepped up to the plate. But those big absences still haunt him and his reputation. Everyone will still talk about his no-show in the 2012 Finals and that specter hung over him at the end of last season’s playoffs.
The Rockets have the top seed in the Western Conference. They upped the ante in acquiring Chris Paul this summer and seem to be the only team that can stand toe to toe with the Golden State Warriors juggernaut. The team is not going to break apart if they are unable to climb over that hill this year. But there is still undoubted pressure. Harden has to produce and get his team to that door. And then eventually through.
There is no time to disappear now. Harden is the likely MVP. That award will get validated only by taking his team to the NBA Finals, and possibly winning the whole championship.
Harden has reached a level where his legacy is determined solely on championships. He has been to the conference finals once with his team. Last year, he struggled to get his team over the finish line in an elimination game at home.
This season is about redemption… and maybe a bit more.