HOUSTON -- A loss on Sunday would have felt more like a cold and grimy Midwest winter rather than the happy summer now developing in the Gulf Coast.
James Harden would have felt sick, sicker than he was just a few days ago with the flu that forced him to take an IV and drink plenty of water just to play.
Sunday afternoon in Game 7, Harden returned to his dominating self with 31 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds to lift the Houston Rockets past the Los Angeles Clippers 113-100 in their Western Conference semifinals series.
The win pushed the Rockets to the West finals, where the No. 1-seeded Golden State Warriors await with Game 1 on Tuesday night in Oakland, California.
Left for dead in this series, the Rockets became the ninth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit. And in some ways, Harden bounced back, too.
"Ultimate confidence booster," he said. "There are only a handful of teams that have done that; it gives us confidence. I think after finishing that first series [over Dallas], we kind of took this series kind of slow in the beginning. It kind of bit us on the butt, but we fought back and we fought for three really hard games and came away with them."
In this series against the Clippers, defense neutralized what Harden does so well: penetrate the lane, pop jumpers from the outside and make clean passes to the open man.
Going into Game 7, Harden had been held to 24.5 points a game along with 4.7 turnovers, and his plus/minus was a minus-6.7. Those were his worst numbers over four playoff series as a Rocket.
From a personal standpoint, Harden dealt with Clippers forward Matt Barnes making a profane remark to Harden's mom in Game 2. The league fined Barnes $50,000 for his remarks, which Harden said were disrespectful. An apology was offered, but how could one forget?
Harden just kept it moving. He had no choice because there was basketball to play and popping Barnes in the mouth would have meant no good to him or his team.
Still, Terrence Jones knocked Barnes down in Game 3 in Los Angeles, and in Game 6, Harden picked up a technical for pushing Barnes off him after a hard foul.
For the rest of the series, Harden had to see Barnes and feel his presence on the floor. Josh Smith had said he didn't know what he would have done if somebody said something so negative to one of his loved ones.
"There was nothing to say; he didn't get caught up in that," Corey Brewer said. "Sometimes the other teams will do stuff to get us caught up in it, but he stayed professional and came out and played basketball."
It was clear Harden wasn't himself, but it was probably more about what the Clippers were doing to him defensively than anything else.
Prior to Game 5, Harden was so sick he was coughing while on the court and during his remarks with reporters after the game. That night, Harden recorded his first playoff triple-double (26-11-10) in a season-saving victory.
Then in Game 6, Harden had to become a cheerleader in Houston's remarkable comeback. He sat for all but 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and watched the Rockets rally from 19 points down to force a Game 7.
Harden, the runner-up in MVP voting, wasn't involved in the party, and that had to be motivation for Game 7. It just had to be.
He said it wasn't, yet in Game 7, Harden scored 12 first-quarter points, along with three assists, two steals, a blocked shot and three rebounds.
"No, not at all," he said of the motivating factor. "That's my job, to be aggressive. Be aggressive and make plays and dominate the game."
In this series, Harden had a triple-double, got knocked around, kept his composure and, in the end, helped his team win a Game 7 and set up a matchup with the NBA's No. 1 team.
"It shows he's grown up and that he's becoming a real superstar," Brewer said. "In Game 6, he was not out there during our run, but he was engaged, he was on the bench cheering. He stayed up and then he comes out tonight and we get a win."