HOUSTON -- This was the nightmare scenario for James Harden.
After a dreadful season-ending performance in Game 6 in front of his home crowd, the Rockets All-Star was accused of quitting by several Hall of Famers, according to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith on SportsCenter. Smith went on to say that Harden looked "drugged" on the court and that there needed to be an investigation. A tweet from ESPN's Chris Haynes that read, "A text from a league executive: 'Has an NBA player ever been investigated for point shaving?'" generated over 1,000 retweets.
So, that's not ideal.
While it's unclear why Harden didn't look like himself on the court, a simpler explanation seems a whole lot more plausible:
Harden was running on empty, gassed from a grueling regular season.
Harden registered a listless performance Thursday against the Spurs, scoring just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting with six turnovers and a disqualifying six fouls. He barely ventured into the paint, settling for 3-pointers on nine of his 11 field goal attempts. The Rockets as a team registered just nine 2-pointers on the night, the lowest for a game in NBA history.
But what truly made this a nightmare scenario were Harden's comments -- quotes that are now cringe-worthy after the Rockets got embarrassed by 39 points to a short-handed Spurs team -- back in March. As LeBron James and the Spurs employed resting strategies throughout the regular season, Harden made headlines by denouncing the concept of resting.
"I'm a hooper," Harden said. "I just want to hoop. I'll rest when I'm done. I feel like my teammates and organization need me to go out there and do what I do."
And when a reporter followed up and asked Harden if Mike D'Antoni would try to sit him and save energy for the playoffs, Harden replied, "Mike knows not to come at me with that."
Harden's teammates and organization needed Harden to come up big in Game 6, but instead he registered the lowest Game Score (a measure of single-game productivity) of his 2016-17 season, according to Basketball-Reference.com tracking. What's worse, it was the second-lowest Game Score of his playoff tenure in Houston, a clunk-fest only to be outdone by another elimination game -- Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors last season, when he coughed up 12 turnovers. When I asked a Rockets executive to explain Harden's performance, the text read: "Just ran out of gas. Very disappointing."
D'Antoni and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich don't exactly see eye-to-eye when it comes to strategic rest. In December, when the Cavs were resting their star trio, D'Antoni gave his thoughts on the growing DNP-Rest movement, underscoring the difficult balance of business versus performance that coaches face. "I'm not really for it," D'Antoni said. "You think of the kid that travels three hours to see somebody and they don't show up, it's tough. So it's complicated."
D'Antoni is not wrong to think of the fans in this case. But a postseason flameout like this can hit much harder on an emotional level. That much was heartbreakingly clear after Game 6, when a young Rockets locker room attendant wept in the corner while the media filed in for postgame interviews.
Is there evidence that Harden could have used more rest? Without wearable trackers that measure heart rate and body workload, we're not privy to a boatload of scientific evidence that could have shown whether Harden was overly fatigued (by league rule, teams can't strap wearables on players, even if players do it anyway). Still, there are available numbers on the league's website that appear circumstantially damning.
Pull up data on NBA.com, and you'll see that Harden dragged along at a snail's pace in Game 6 with an average speed of 3.36 miles per hour. That was the slowest of any player who played at least 10 minutes in the game. Overall, Harden has seen his average speed fall from 3.68 in the regular season to 3.53 in the postseason. But LeBron James had maintained his speed at 3.75, despite six straight NBA Finals.
It gets worse, the next slowest guy, Eric Gordon, registered 3.97 miles per hour, according to the player tracking data, which means that Harden was moving 50 feet per minute slower than the next slowest guy. Consider the tickling fact that Jonathon Simmons could have laid down for six straight minutes on the floor, and he still would have covered more ground than Harden in equal minutes.
Yes, Simmons covered 2.1 miles compared to Harden's 2.03 in six fewer minutes on the floor. (And if Harden rested more during the regular season, perhaps a reserve like Simmons wouldn't have held Harden to 1-of-6 shooting with six turnovers in Games 5 and 6.) Granted, Harden and the Rockets may have lost Game 6 anyway even if Harden regularly sat on back-to-backs like LeBron did. But time and time again, we see rested players outperforming the regular-season martyrs who mock the idea of resting.
Before winning the 2014 Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard ranked 138th in minutes played during the regular season. Andre Iguodala spent the regular season coming off the bench before nabbing the 2015 Finals MVP. Before his brilliant 2016 Finals manifesto, LeBron James enjoyed 19 extra days off in the playoffs as a result of sweeping early-round opponents, while the Warriors labored through injuries and a grueling seven-game marathon against the OKC Thunder. Let's also not forget the Warriors decided to chase 73 wins that season instead of resting down the stretch.
This is the whole point of resting during the regular season. Popovich has regularly sat his stars to both prevent injury and give his second unit plenty of opportunity to thrive and gain chemistry.
The Rockets could point to a Nene injury as an excuse, but that strains credibility when you consider the Spurs played without starters Tony Parker and Leonard in Game 6. The Spurs' reserves stepped up to the challenge because Popovich asked them to step up eight times before in the regular season when he sat Leonard.
This doesn't bode well for the 2017-18 regular season if you're buying a ticket to see the NBA's best. The league's biggest star, LeBron, took games off and spent the past couple months reminding fans that regular-season outcomes didn't matter much to him. Commissioner Adam Silver announced at a news conference that there was no more important issue for the league than star players' DNP-Rests. Now Harden's lifeless performance may spur more instances of healthy scratches next season.
Russell Westbrook and Harden's MVP cases were often buttressed by their visceral opposition to DNP-Rests and yet both flamed out in the postseason in spectacular fashion. Westbrook shot 38.8 percent on 30.4 field goal attempts while turning the ball over six times per game in his first-round exit. Harden missed 45 3-pointers in six games against a Spurs team that collectively ran five more miles on the floor than the Rockets did in the series, according to player-tracking data. With little burst left, Westbrook and Harden were reduced to chucking from deep. The pair shot 27.3 percent on 3s on a combined 20.6 attempts per game in the postseason, whereas those figures were 34.5 percent and 16.4, respectively, in the regular season.
Westbrook and Harden dazzled audiences in the regular season. But in the end, the human body in today's NBA can only handle so much. No, Harden wasn't "drugged" in Game 6. But the idea that strategic rest is the enemy -- not a friend -- sure can be intoxicating for hoopers like Harden.