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Harden’s winner worth celebrating amid Rockets’ whirlwind season

James Harden had an opportunity to rise above the noise in Game 3. He took advantage, stepped back and drained the game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors.

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The victorious feeling will likely prove temporary, but James Harden should savor his game-winning, face-saving jumper. This was a genuine highlight during a lost season, one that bucked expectations by proceeding in orderly fashion during a moment of peak chaos for one of the league’s shakiest outfits.  

There will be plenty of guffaws at the shot’s aftermath. TNT’s cameras caught Harden’s teammates, most notably Dwight Howard and Corey Brewer, barely batting an eyelash when Houston’s All-Star guard drained a jumper to provide the winning margin in a 97–96 Game 3 home victory. Rather than celebrate the fact they were about to pull within 2–1 in their series with the Warriors, the Rockets’ bench appeared annoyed or inconvenienced, at least to the cynical eye. Of course, a dysfunctional and disappointing team would rather get on with its off-season rather than go back to Oracle Arena for a Game 5 next week, right?

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Harden isn’t immune from the doom and gloom that’s engulfed the Rockets this season. Nevertheless, his Game 3 performance—capped off by the game-winner—was admirable because it came amid the exact type of adversity that has sabotaged the Rockets all year.

Facing a Warriors team without Stephen Curry, who missed his second straight game with an ankle injury, the Rockets built a big early lead only to watch it crumble in the fourth quarter. After a series of turnovers and two missed free throws from Howard, who failed to deliver when intentionally fouled at a moment of peak pressure, the Warriors put together an 11–2 run to claim a 94–93 lead, their first since the game’s opening sequence. Then, after two Michael Beasley free throws and two missed jumpers by Golden State sharpshooter Klay Thompson, the Rockets managed to reclaim a one-point lead with less than 15 seconds left.

Rather than calmly play the free-throw game and milk its edge, Houston immediately made a mess of things. After the Rockets used their final timeout, Trevor Ariza couldn’t find a target for his inbounds pass, eventually sending the Warriors the other way by throwing a dead duck that was tracked down by Shaun Livingston. Seizing the opportunity, Livingston fed Ian Clark in stride for a go-ahead layup with 10.6 seconds.

Here was Houston’s excuse to fold, staring it right in the face. The Rockets had given away their lead, they were out of timeouts, they surely hadn’t prepared a play to recover from such a calamitous and unexpected turn of events, and they weren’t expected to win a game, anyway.

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Rather than bow to those familiar stressors, Harden pushed back, slowly building his speed as he brought the ball up the court against Andre Iguodala. As he crossed half-court, it was hard not to think back to Game 2 of the 2015 Western Conference finals against the Warriors. In the closing seconds of that game, Harden panicked in a very similar situation, picking up his dribble, missing a cutter, tossing an ill-advised pass to Howard and then failing to get off a shot as he was smothered by both Curry and Thompson. So frustrated by his indecision, Harden famously batted a curtain on his way off the court.

Harden handled things totally differently on Thursday, first recognizing that Golden State wouldn’t be doubling him and then selling the drive well enough that he created plenty of room for a spinning step-back. His feet, his body and the ball moved in perfect coordination as he spun counterclockwise and then hopped back, squared his shoulders and stepped into a pretty 12-footer. The shot swished through with 2.7 seconds, a soft-touch finish to the pedal-to-the-metal, end-to-end madness.  

“The last shot was typical of what James does. The move we’ve seen before,” Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff told reporters afterward. “He was able to get to his spot. That’s a shot he works on every single day. ... I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him make that exact move from that exact spot.”

Harden, who finished with a game-high 35 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, had staved off the possibility of an embarrassing sweep and salvaged a bit of pride in the process.

“From [the] turnover, to them scoring a layup, missing shots, I tried to keep my composure and focus on winning the game,” he told reporters. “Clark made the layup and I knew we needed a bucket. ... The playoffs are about winning, no matter how it gets done.”

This series, and this season, haven’t been about Harden, at least not in the same way as last year: Houston fell from the West’s No. 2 seed in 2015 to the lottery bubble, dumping coach Kevin McHale early, while Harden fell from MVP runner-up to “not mentioned at all.” Meanwhile, Curry and the Warriors have ascended to even loftier highlights, even as the reigning MVP’s status remains unknown for Sunday’s Game 4 in Houston.

While there have been plenty of good opportunities to mock the Rockets, to scold the Rockets and to lament the Rockets over the last six months, this shouldn’t be one of them.

“Big win to keep series on serve [and] folks are worried about grading cheer technique [and] execution when there is still time left on the clock?” Rockets GM Daryl Morey wondered on Twitter. “OK.”

Letting the subdued reactions from Houston’s bench—and all the easy cracks they provoke—overshadow Harden’s technical brilliance would be a mistake. After all, Harden was presented with an opportunity to live down to the prevailing negative assumptions that have surrounded his franchise. He chose to spin away from the noise, at least for a night, set his feet, and drain one hell of a shot.