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Breaking down Postseason James Harden

Evaluating his play in elimination games

By Blake A SwanPublished about a year ago 10 min read
Breaking down Postseason James Harden
Photo by Kvalifik on Unsplash

James Harden has been in 12 closeout games in his NBA career. Obviously, he has not won a title so that resulted in a loss.

We will exclude the dominant 2016 GSW team that set the NBA record. We will also exclude the 2011 WCF v DAL when he wasn't a starter.

Now looking at his results we know the other series offered ample opportunity to win against GSW which I have detailed below. Meaning Harden has had:

Out of 10 games when facing elimination in his NBA career: Harden is 2/10. 2 good games vs 8 bad games.

If we include his last NCAA tournament appearance into the mix. A year where he played my Temple Owls in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament where Dionte Christmas was obviously the best player on the court and Harden disappeared.

2009 ASU Elimination games. 2 Bad games in college.

Good Elimination games: 2

These are games in which Harden had a positive (+/-) rating. Even though his teams did not when, we know that he had a net positive impact when he was on the court.

  • *2011 WCF v DAL (non-starter)
  • 2013 WC1 v OKC
  • 2014 WC1 v POR

Bad Elimination games: 8

A "bad" game is quantified as a game in which Harden has a negative (+/-) rating. His teams did not win and his performance on the court contributed to the loss.

  • 2012 Finals v MIA
  • 2015 WCF v GSW (When they won first Title)
  • *2016 WC1 v GSW (GSW Record Setting Team)
  • 2017 WCS v SAS (at home by 39 w/o Kahwi)
  • 2018 WCF v GSW (Up 3-2 as 1 seed)
  • 2019 WCS v GSW (Tied 2-2/Every game 6 pts or less)
  • 2020 WCS v LAL
  • 2021 ECS v MIL
  • 2022 ECS v MIA

What does this mean?

Please, don't just take my word for it. I have gone through these games to detail the information for you. Giving you the relevant stats and information for his performance in these spots and in the NBA information that puts the loss in perspective.

James Harden in College

By Michael Marsh on Unsplash

Consensus All-American. Pac-10 Player of the year. Harden was supposed to be a major factor in college basketball and was destined for a successful pro career. Surely, he would show us what he's about in the NCAA tournament... right?

Arizona State v Temple: Won 66 - 57

  • Harden: 34 minutes/9PTS/1-8FG/1-3 3PT/6-9 FT
  • 7REB (1 OREB)/3AST/4TO
  • ASU Leaders Ayres 22 PTS and Glasser 22 PTS then Harden

As an alumnus of Temple University, I remember this game. Expecting to get destroyed by this player who had all of this hype. Maybe we were better than I thought. Maybe it was just a bad game.

Arizona State v Syracuse: Lost 78 - 67

  • Harden: 40 minutes/10PTS/2-10 FG/0-5 3PT/6-8 FT
  • 6REB (1 OREB)/5AST/2TO
  • ASU leaders in scoring Kuksiks and Abbott then Harden

Again, Harden was a non-factor. He could not hit a shot to save his life on the biggest stage in college basketball. Losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Yet another game where Harden was absent.

Harden in Elimination Games

Including his breakout season at ASU where he became Pac 10 Player of the year and named a consensus All-American in the 2009 season. It means Harden has played a total of 12 closeout games on the biggest stages. In those games, he has had 2 good games out of his 12 opportunities.

NBA Elimination Games

By Markus Spiske on Unsplash

2011 WCF: Lost 4-1 v DAL

Harden was a BENCH Player. These were not "his teams" but including these games for your data.

  • Harden Plays 30+ minutes and Did Not Start a Postseason Game
  • 34:21 minutes/22 PTS/7-11FG/1-5 3PT (6-20 3PT Series)/8-10 FT/(+3)
  • 4REB/5AST/3TO

2012 NBA Finals : Lost 4-1 v MIAMI (Lost 4 in a row)

OKC picked Ibaka over Harden. Ibaka in his career ended up winning a championship. Durant went on to win Finals and Finals MVP. Harden and Russ won MVPs.

  • Game 1 Harden 22 minutes - OKC wins by 11 (+2)
  • Games 2 Harden 34:53 minutes - OKC lost by 4 (-13)
  • Games 3/4/5 Harden 34+ minutes - OKC lost by 6/6/15. Harden (- 5/4/17)
  • Game 5: 35 minutes/19 PTS/5-11 FG/3-8 3PT (7-22 3PT Series)/6-6 FT/(-17)
  • 6REB/7AST/4TO

Harden's Teams

By Jason Leung on Unsplash

With OKC deciding to move on from Harden, he finally got his own team. He would flourish. Becoming one of the key faces of the leagues and owning the most recognizable facial hair in the league. Culminating in an MVP award and multi-MVP candidate. However, what about his performances in the NBA Playoffs?

2013 WC1 : Lost 4-2 v OKC (got down 0-3)

Harden played well this series. Perhaps he was motivated by playing his former team. Regardless, this was an unquestionably good outing by Harden. Showing signs of a promising future.

  • Game 6: 43 minutes/26PTS/7-22 FG/4-10 3PT (15-44 3PT Series)/8-11 FT/(+3)
  • 4REB/6AST/4TO in 11 PT loss (4 games under .250% 3PT in series)

2014 WC1 : Lost 4-1 v POR

Another positive individual performance by Harden. However, we begin to notice his shooting slumps in the postseason. Between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Harden had 8 games where he shot 27.3% or lower from deep.

  • Game 6: 41 minutes/34PTS/9-15 FG/4-6 3PT (16-54 3PT Series)/12-12 FT/(+7)
  • 4REB/6AST/4TO in 1 PT loss (4 games under .273% 3PT in series)

2015 WCF: Lost 4-1 v GSW (Pre Durant)

This year was the rise of the Golden State Warriors. A team that wasn't anything yet. Which is why we have kept this year in the record for this analysis. After Josh Smith and Corey Brewer carried the Rockets into the Western Conference Finals, Harden would end the year setting an NBA record for turnovers.

  • Game 5: 43 minutes/14PTS/2-11 FG/0-3 3PT (12-28 3PT Series)/10-13 FT/(-4)
  • 6REB/5AST/*12TO (2 games .200% and 3 games under .333% 3PT in series)
  • *James Harden sets the record for Playoff turnovers with 12.

Notes: 2015 WCS

Got down 3-1 against the lower seeded Clippers before another let down player, CP3 couldn't get it done. The 4th QTR Spark came from Josh Smith and Corey Brewer scoring 29 points and LAC missing 14 straight shots.

* 2016 WC1 : Lost 4-1 v GSW (Record GSW Team)

This is the season that I have excluded. Golden State was clearly the better team. The number one seed that was destined for all-time greatness save for one Green foot to the junk of LeBron James.

  • Game 5: 36 minutes/35PTS/12-23 FG/3-7 3PT (13-42 3PT Series)/8-9 FT/(-27)
  • 6REB/6AST/7TO (3 games .286% or less 3PT in series)

2017 WCS : Lost 4-2 v SAS

(Lost at home vs SAS w/o Leonard by 39)

This is the series when the hope and potential of James Harden began to fade. Houston destroyed San Antonio in the first game of this series. Only to get destroyed themselves in the very next game. Worse, Harden disappeared at home against the spurs without Kahwi Leonard. He had more Turnovers than field goals, was (-28) in a game they lost by 39 points.

  • Game 6: 36 minutes/10PTS/2-11 FG/2-9 3PT (20-63 3PT Series)/4-6 FT/(-28)
  • 3REB/7AST/6TO/Fouled Out (3 games .267% of less 3PT in series)

*Houston first team to open the series with a blowout to get blown out in the second game.

2018 WCF : Lost 4-3 v GSW

(Up 3-2 and lost Game 7 @ Home. Up as much as 15 1st half)

This year looks very different based on how the year ended. We know that Golden State would go on to defeat LeBron with Kevin Durant's Finals MVP performance. However, Houston was the best team in the NBA this season. Bolstered by Harden and Chris Paul, they were the one seed. They went up in the series.

With two games to close out the Warriors. In fact, in game 7 at home they went up double digits in the first half. Nearly leading by double digits at halftime. The loss was the first time a road team won in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals since the 2001-2002 Lakers

  • Game 7: 42 min/32 PTS/12-29 FG/2-13 3PT (19-78 3PT Series)/6-8 FT/(-13)
  • 6REB/6AST/5TO (5 games .250% of less 3PT in series)

*Houston best record in franchise history and best record in the NBA with Harden and CP3.

*First Game 7 win on the road for GSW since 1948 and first team since 01-02 Lakers to win WCF Game 7 on the road.

2019 WCS : Lost 4-2 v GSW

(Tied 2-2, Lost by 5PTS Games 5&6. Lost at Home)

In this series, every game was a close game. Both teams won on their home court in the first 4 games leading to a 2-2 series tie. They went on to lose the last two games including game 6 at home. Harden had 4 games at or below 0 for the plus/minus. In the final game of the series, Harden was a -10 in a 5-point loss.

  • Game 6: 38 min/35PTS/11-25 FG/6-15 3PT (29-77 3PT Series)/7-12 FT/(-10)
  • 8REB/5AST/6TO (1 game of .250% or less 3PT in series)

*All 6 games were decided by 6 or less points. First time in NBA History. Harden had 4 games of 0 or Less (+/-): -9/4/0/10

2020 WCS : Lost 4-1 v LAL

(Lost 4 in a row, Game 5 was a 23-point loss)

This wasn't a team we expected to win a championship. In fact, the Rockets took game 1. Yet, Harden was a hug negative on the plus/minus. Moreover, he had two games at 0 and two games that went negative. His -29 occurred in a game they lost by 23 points.

After his record setting 12 turnovers in the 2015 Western Conference Finals, Harden had at least 5 turnovers in elimination games in the Western Conference Playoffs.

  • Game 5: 42 min/30PTS/12-20 FG/2-8 3PT (14-37 3PT Series)/4-4 FT/(-29)
  • 6RED/5AST/6TO/5 Fouls (Last 2 games of series .250% or less 3PT)

Harden had 2 games of 0 (+/-) and 2 games negative (+/-): -7/29

2021 ECS Lost 4-3 v MIL (Harden played 4 games due to injury)

Even saying he played 4 games is a stretch. He put in 3 games of meaningful action. In those 3 games his shooting was a nonfactor. However, he did contribute to other areas. Even breaking his streak of 5 or more turnovers and almost achieving a triple double. However, he was a net negative.

  • Game 7: 53 min/22PTS/5-17 FG/2-12 3PT (5-26 3PT Series)/10-10 FT/(-4)
  • 8REB/9AST/4TO (2 games of .167% or less (0/8 and 2/12) 3PT in series)

2022 ECS Lost 4-2 v MIA (4 games negative (+/-). Lost at Home)

This season has come to another abrupt end. Harden did not show up for most of this series. Not even attempting a shot in the second half. Not even getting to the free throw line, which generates a majority of his points. Especially in the postseason.

  • Game 6: 42 min/11PTS/4-9 FG/3-7 3PT (15-42 3PT Series)/0-0 FT/(-16)
  • 4REB/9AST/4TO (3 games of .286% or less 3PT in series)


We know James Harden is a Hall of Fame talent. That’s not up for debate. The point we are examining is his performance in the postseason. Where it’s clear that James Harden can be a vital piece to a championship team. He is not the crucial piece to a championship team. Like many other players, he needs the freedom to add to greatness with his own greatness. When pushed into a corner, he is not the type of player that will fight you to the death. He will produce. He will contribute.

Unfortunately, his game has always been limited when the games get more physical, and the whistles get quiet. In an NBA where the regular season lacks effort, and you can get away with a lot offensively. Neither his game, nor Joel Embiid’s game, isn’t designed to close out games with adversity. Settling for jump shots and complaining to refs. You have to take Harden out of that position.


About the Creator

Blake A Swan

NCSA Strength and Conditioning Professional certified as a CSCS, TSAC-F, and CPT. I have my FMS Certification as well, and spent over a decade working with athletes in various sports. Including youth, high school, college, Olympic and Pro.

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