Harden has proven he's capable of being the lead dog in his first season with the Rockets. He's averaging 25.8 points per game and shooting 44 percent from the field. He's also converting 37 percent of his attempts from behind the arc.
ESPN ranked Harden eighth on their list of the NBA's 30 best players. His emergence from a third wheel on the Oklahoma City Thunder to the main option in Houston is a big reason why the Rockets find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 season.
Harden will enter this year's playoffs looking to make up for the way he finished the postseason last year. After some stellar play leading up to the NBA Finals, Harden was lackluster in the championship series against the Heat.
The Arizona State product averaged just 12.4 points per game in the finals. He shot 37 percent from the field and just 31 percent from the three-point line. That's a big drop from the 18.5 points per game he scored in the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs.
In that series, Harden shot nearly 50 percent from the field and an astonishing 60 percent from the three-point line.
This year, he has proven himself a bit more capable of handling high-pressure situations. In the last two minutes of games where his team is ahead or behind by three, Harden has scored 33 points. That's good for 15th-best in the NBA.
In the final five minutes of games where the Rockets are ahead or behind by five this season, Harden has scored 120 points (fifth-best in the league). He's also shooting 43.5 percent from the field during that span. (Stats courtesy of NBA.com as of April 9).
The Rockets clinched a playoff spot on April 9 in a win over Phoenix that ended when Suns center Jermaine O'Neal was called for goal-tending on Harden's last-second, three-point shot. If the playoffs started today, Harden would open this postseason against his old mates in Oklahoma City.
For that reason alone, Harden will be better in the first round than he was in the NBA Finals. The former Thunder sixth man will definitely be motivated to show what he can do against the team that traded him before the start of the season.
He already showed off some of this last-second heroics in a game against Oklahoma City on Feb. 20.
In this clip, Harden comes up with the loose ball in the closing seconds of the third quarter. He races down the court before stopping just short of half court. With one second left on the clock, Harden nails a three at the buzzer.
Oddly enough, the Rockets would go on to win the game by three points, 122-119.
Harden came up huge at times for Oklahoma City during last year's playoffs. One of his few highlights of the NBA Finals was the off-balance buzzer-beater he drained in the closing seconds of the first quarter in Game 1.
In Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Harden hit one of the biggest shots of his career.
With the Thunder up by two in San Antonio with 40 seconds to go, Harden dribbles around in an attempt to break free from some tough defense by Kawhi Leonard. Finally, with the shot clock down to five, Harden is able to step back and nail the three with Leonard still in his face.
As bad as his finals performance was, that disappointment might be just the lesson Harden needed to learn to be better prepared for future postseason excursions.
LeBron James used his failure in the 2010-11 NBA Finals as motivation. He came back the next season stronger and took over the 2011-12 playoffs, including putting the team on his back in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston.
Harden may not be "King James," but he's proven this season that he's worthy of being placed among the league's best players. He'll be much wiser entering these playoffs, and he will be more comfortable in the spotlight after getting a taste of it last season.
His numbers during the closing minutes show that he's a guy who wants the ball with the game on the line. That's the mark of a franchise player. He has a solid supporting cast and a head coach who knows a thing or two about being in some big playoff games.
The Rockets will enter their opening series, be it against San Antonio or Oklahoma City, with much lower expectations than Harden's Thunder team had last season. They'll be a huge underdog in the first round, but Harden can make amends for last season by answering the bell in this year's playoffs.
The pressure won't be the same, but the focus will still be on "The Beard." He has to prove that last year's finals were an aberration. As the Rockets' best player, the fate of the team rests on his shoulders.
Judging by his numbers in pressure situations this season, that seems to be the kind of scenario that Harden enjoys.
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