EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- James Harden, the Houston Rockets' talented shooting guard, was honest about his play in the opening three games of his team's Western Conference series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
He hasn’t been a beast.
The Rockets need Harden to elevate his game in this series, or their season will come to an end in the middle of next week.
Harden is averaging a nice 27.4 points per game this postseason, but a closer look reveals something else.
Harden leads the NBA in postseason turnovers, at 40, and produced plus/minus in the negative in both losses to the Clippers.
“I think the aggressiveness will determine the passes that I should make and the shots that I should take,” he said after practice Saturday. “That’s basically a combination of those two. I take control when I need to, and I’m a playmaker when I need to be as well. The aggressiveness factor will take care of all that, in a sense of going out there and being a beast, basically.”
Against the Clippers, Harden is shooting 45.7 percent from the floor, and he has made 10 of 23 3-pointers. The good news is Harden has made 25 of 26 free throws. The bad news is Harden’s team is trailing in the series 2-1.
Harden has endured issues with the Clippers in the past. In 20 regular-season games against the squad, Harden shot 35.3 percent from the floor and averaged just 14.8 points. During this series, the Clippers' J.J. Redick has covered him in single coverage, but the Clippers often add an extra defender, which forces Harden to make decisions.
He is forcing passes and not recognizing coverages soon enough. When he sees double coverage, he needs to either split the defenders or pass to the open man.
Harden’s game is predicated on drawing fouls because of his ability to create contact on drives, and at times, he shoots jumpers while leaning into a defender. He ranks fourth in the postseason, with 79 drives, which have generated 53 points, also fourth in the league. Entering play Saturday, Harden led the NBA with 58 points in transition.
“James is a good player, has played well all year long,” coach Kevin McHale said. “The defense dictates what you do. If the paint is loaded with five guys, you don’t drive in there. If two [are] on the ball, you pass it. If they’re openings, you take them. That’s Basketball 101.”
In Game 2, Harden drew nine fouls, and the Clippers complained about the number of calls he and others received. In Friday's 124-99 loss to the Clippers, Harden drew just four fouls and finished with 25 points in 36 minutes.
“Just keep driving, and hopefully [get some calls],” McHale said. “It was a big beef about all those free throw shots. He’s got to go in there, and you got to attack and try to score. There were four or five times they reached in and grabbed his arm and didn’t get the call. That’s going to happen. I said, when everybody was beefing about fouls, I could show you five or six times every game he drives in there and people reach. But he’s a contact player, and you got to go through places of the contact and finish it. You hope when they do grab, you get rewarded with free throws.”
A lack of aggression could be attributed to the number of minutes Harden has played. He said he doesn't feel worn down, despite leading the league in minutes in the regular season. In three games against the Clippers, while encountering double-teams and the burden of being the leading scorer, he has played at least 35 minutes per game.
"I prepare myself for this long season, this long playoff push," he said. "It's not about me being fatigued at all. It's not in the back of my mind. I'm focused on the things we need to correct and trying to win Game 4."