Durant outplaying Harden when it matters most

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Monday in San Francisco, Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and stars Chris Paul and James Harden spoke in front of cameras about officiating, rebounding and adjustments.

There was not a single question or mention of the cloud that’s hanging over their team as the Rockets face a 1-0 series deficit in the Western Conference semifinals.

Across the Bay Bridge in Oakland, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Stephen Curry spent more than 20 minutes talking about officiating, Kerr opening his media conference with a vaudevillian fake flop, mocking the Rockets.

Kevin Durant‘s name was mentioned one time — by Kerr, referencing his technical fouls.

All this handwringing, posturing and video analysis of the officiating is one giant misdirection. The Western Conference and perhaps the NBA title aren’t hinging on the whistle, they’re hinging on the superstars.

Durant is red hot and absolutely dominating. Harden is in another ill-timed postseason slump.

All the last-two-minute reports in the world don’t mean anything compared to that reality. If it doesn’t change, the Warriors will be moving on and the Rockets can start their summer.

Over the Warriors’ past five games, ever since Durant ripped off the mildly pompous but deadly serious quip “I’m Kevin Durant,” he has been a killer.

Here are the numbers: 55 percent shooting, 40 percent on 3-pointers, 91 percent from the line and 40.2 points per game. In Sunday’s Game 1, he had 24 points in the second half to carry the Warriors home.

“I think I’m starting to put everything together out there,” Durant said Sunday.

Whether it’s the trick defense he saw against the Utah Jazz, some sort of issue with his left wrist that he has dismissed, or that he has been more focused on drawing fouls on 3-pointers than actually making them, Harden has been unable to keep up his torrid pace from the regular season.

Over the Rockets’ past four games, here’s what it looks like: 32 percent shooting and 28 percent on 3-pointers and 28.3 points per game. That’s 8 points per game less than his regular-season average, and he has gotten there only because he’s still averaging 11 free throws a game and hitting 88 percent of those.

In this four-game stretch, the Rockets’ juggernaut offense is averaging only 98.8 points a game and shooting 40 percent. Their offensive rating, the Holy Grail for the analytically obsessed Rockets, during that span is 100.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s about 12 points less than their season average and a number that would’ve put them dead last among all teams during the season.

The Rockets have been wheezing because Harden, at the most important time of the season, hasn’t been playing like the MVP the Rockets assert that he is. His midrange game has lost some touch and his 3-point shooting has collapsed, perhaps thrown off by the Jazz’s efforts to trap him and take him out of his comfort zone.

Last season, during the conference finals loss to the Warriors, Harden lost his shooting touch and his efficiency. He shot a miserable 24 percent on 3-pointers in that series. The 27 consecutive team misses in Game 7 — Harden was 2-of-13 on 3-pointers that night — is what many remember, but he had another game where he was 0-of-11 on 3s. When it truly mattered, he just wasn’t able to deliver.

Meanwhile, Durant led the Warriors in minutes and scoring in the conference finals. In the closeout game, he had 34 points. Durant has a wonderful safety net — for example, he struggled shooting when the Warriors faced elimination in Game 6 last year, but Klay Thompson put in 35 to erase the issue — that Harden doesn’t enjoy. But he also doesn’t seem to get the proper spotlight at times.

Durant hasn’t finished in the top five of the MVP voting since he came to the Warriors. Last season, when Harden won, DeMar DeRozan was on nearly as many ballots as Durant was. He probably won’t finish in the top five this season, either, when Harden is a serious contender to win again.

It’s one of the taxes Durant has paid for being on a superteam: Recognition for his individual greatness has been somewhat diminished. He has walked away with the past two Finals MVPs, but for whatever reason that hasn’t earned him the respect it should. Perhaps because those Finals were so lopsided, it has been unfairly undervalued.

During the 2017 Finals, Durant’s performance made the case that he’d taken the mantle from LeBron James as the best player in the league. Paul Pierce, under some scrutiny because of his long-standing personal rivalry with James, said as much during television coverage of that series. Pierce declared it the dawn of the Durant era, and that was even before Durant’s Game 3 dagger over James cemented him as the eventual winner of the Bill Russell Trophy.

Two years on, the Warriors are two rings richer and Durant is right on pace to back up Pierce’s proclamation as he searches for his third. Regardless of regular-season recognition, Durant is built for the postseason because his phenomenal size plus his range make him invaluable in half-court possession games. It has showed the past two years and, after a hiccup game during which the LA ClippersPatrick Beverley succeeded in getting under his skin in the previous round, it’s happening again.

“Kevin can get his own shot at any time he wants,” Kerr said. “That’s what makes him so impossible to guard. He understands what we need from him and he’s been delivering game after game.”

In 2016, when Harden lost to the Warriors in the playoffs (he shot just 31 percent from 3-point territory in that series), he wasn’t ready and didn’t have the team to compete. Last year, he was at the top of his game and had a loaded team, but an injury to Paul derailed the bid. This year, the Rockets are healthy and they had a rest advantage coming into Game 1. Some believe, despite a lesser record, that this team is better equipped to beat a thinner and more unsteady Warriors squad.

Beating a historically great team is truly an all-encompassing challenge. Just ask James, who lost three times in four years to Golden State and eventually tapped out to start over elsewhere. The assembly of talent the Warriors have is hard to beat even if you’re at the top of your game, as Jerry West was when he repeatedly failed to beat the Boston Celtics in the 1960s.

But West and James went out to the dynasties at the top of their games, valiantly fighting to the end each time. Harden hasn’t been able to say that just yet.

It’s just 1-0; there’s lots of time left for Harden to change the story. But Durant has owned the edge for the past few years, and he owned it again in Game 1. In the end, that’s the issue at the heart of this series.

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