Was Harden’s Poor Performance the Worst Ever by a Star Player in the Playoffs?
James Harden’s woeful 13-turnover, 14-point (off of 2-for-11 shooting) performance in Houston’s 104–90 Game 5 loss to Golden State—that eliminated the Rockets—was a line he (along with his teammates, fans, and coach) would just as soon forget. Unfortunately, Harden will have all summer to try to get this bad taste out of his mouth—now that his season is done.
It was actually the second regrettable performance in the last three games for the two-time All-NBA first-team performer, who scored 17 off of 3-for-16 shooting in the Game 3 blowout loss.
The 25-year-old Harden, who finished runner-up in the MVP race and finished second in points per game (27.4), sandwiched the two poor performances around a 45-point masterpiece in Houston’s Game 4 win, but still may have trouble escaping the bad rap that comes with a poor end-of-season performance.
Fortunately for Harden, there have been other stars who were able to rebound after such a performance.
In 1984 Magic Johnson and the Lakers were in the Finals against the Celtics—which featured, among others, Harden’s current head coach in Houston, Kevin McHale.
Magic, then 25, had already won a pair of titles in ’80 and ’82 and was looking for a third, but it was not to be—and his shockingly poor play in the clutch was a big reason why.
First, there was his Game 2 gaffe—probably his biggest. With 13 seconds left in a tie game, the Lakers in-bounded the ball to Magic who dribbled around trying to find the best angle to get it to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the final shot. But somehow he lost track of the time and ended up dribbling out the clock. The game then went to overtime, where the Lakers lost.
Then in the final seconds of a tied Game 4, he tried to force a pass into the post that was instead stolen by Robert Parish as Boston was able to force overtime and win it there—only after Magic missed a pair of free throws that could have tied the game.
Despite blowing two of the first six games, the Lakers were somehow able to force a Game 7. But with Los Angeles trailing late in the game, Magic committed a pair of turnovers, the second of which virtually sealed Boston’s win.
Then the hits started coming. McHale referred to his opponent as “Tragic” Johnson. The Los Angeles Times wrote a piece titled “Earvin, What Happened to Magic?” while the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner referred to him as the “entitled superstar” and the “goat of the series.” (FYI, goat wasn’t a moniker for greatest of all-time in those days.)
Magic would go on to redeem himself in leading the Lakers to three of the next four titles and all but erased the image of his one bad series.
Harden, meanwhile, may have to endure a few bad headlines like Magic did, but at least McHale’s not his wisecracking opponent this time around.