James Harden had just put the finishing touches on his 61-point performance with a spectacular clutch flurry, scoring the Houston Rockets’ final 13 points from the floor to seal the win over the San Antonio Spurs. He had played 37 minutes in Houston’s third game in four nights in three cities. But the work night wasn’t over for the NBA’s reigning MVP.
Harden walked right through the Rockets’ home locker room to the weight room located in the back immediately after tying the franchise record for points in a game, which he set two months prior. Harden lifted weights under the supervision of Rockets strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett, posting a few clips from the session on Instagram, providing the world a glimpse into part of the plan to keep himself strong throughout a hopefully long playoff run after carrying a historically heavy load this season.
James Harden hits the gym for some work after dropping 61 points in a win against the Spurs.
“This year, I’ve been doing a lot more weightlifting, just to make sure my legs and my body will hold up,” Harden told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols during an interview over the All-Star break. “I mean, I’ve always lifted. This year, I’m putting more emphasis on it, just ’cause I’m 10 years in, so I’ve got to make sure my body is strong enough to last.
“That’s one of the reasons why when people ask, ‘Is he going to be tired? Is he going to be drained?’ I don’t think about it. I just continue to work.”
The Rockets believe Harden’s reputation for fading deep in the playoffs is overblown — “a little bit of a bad, unfair rap on James,” player development coach John Lucas said. Harden’s playoff statistics with the Rockets (27.0 points, 7.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game) are similar to his regular-season numbers from his Houston tenure before this year. But the Rockets have put a lot of thought into how to help him be at his best through May and June.
Viewed skeptically, the statistics suggest that the odds are stacked against Harden. The Rockets readily admit he ran out of gas a couple of postseasons ago, when Houston’s season ended with a horrible Harden performance in a Game 6 blowout loss to the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in the 2017 Western Conference semifinals. That 10-point, 2-of-11 night sticks in the mind of Harden’s critics. So does a 14-point, 2-of-11, 12-turnover dud when the Rockets were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the 2015 West finals.
The doubters also note that no player who has been relied on so heavily during the regular season has enjoyed any sort of playoff success. Harden’s 39.6 percent usage rate this season is the second highest in NBA history, behind only Russell Westbrook’s 40.0 mark during his 2016-17 MVP campaign. None of the players who have the seven previous highest usage-rate seasons in NBA history got out of the first round.
Highest Usage % in a Season, NBA History
|Season||Player||Usage %||Season result|
|2016-17||Russell Westbrook||40.0||L, 1st round|
|2005-06||Kobe Bryant||38.7||L, 1st round|
|2014-15||Russell Westbrook||38.4||Missed playoffs|
|1986-87||Michael Jordan||38.3||L, 1st round|
|2001-02||Allen Iverson||37.8||L, 1st round|
|2016-17||DeMarcus Cousins||36.5||Missed playoffs|
|2008-09||Dwyane Wade||36.2||L, 1st round|
It’s quite a stretch, however, to link that lack of playoff success to fatigue. None of those players played for teams that earned home-court advantage in the first round, as the Rockets likely will. Certainly none of them had a co-star the caliber of Chris Paul — and the Rockets note that neither did Harden when he ran out of gas a couple of years ago.
“Two years ago, it was because he was doing everything all year,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We didn’t have Chris, and [Harden] was running for MVP … and we had to win every game. We didn’t know what we had. Then he got tired. The first series that we played, he was unbelievable. Then we got to San Antonio, and we blew them out the first game, and he got tired. We had overtime in Game 5, and he got tired and couldn’t recover in time for Game 6.
“And everybody: ‘Oh, he’s this and that.’ No, James is great. He sometimes gets tired out here. You can tell if I don’t take him out at the right time, he gets tired. He’s human. But we think that with Chris, that solves a lot of problems.”
Harden didn’t have Paul for much of his historic streak of 32 consecutive 30-point performances, carrying the Rockets by necessity when Paul missed six weeks with a strained hamstring.
“The Unguardable Tour,” as Houston general manager Daryl Morey dubbed it, was fun while it lasted. But it didn’t exactly bother some Houston staffers when it ended, as they were concerned that the increasing attention on the streak could take a mental toll on Harden.
“I was glad that streak ended because it just puts so much pressure,” Lucas said. “Each game mounts pressure in another way. People want to see it, and there’s also some professional jealousy. It was good, we really needed it, it’s great for him — great run — but just think if he was still going with that streak.”
The Rockets also attempt to manage Harden’s physical workload, as much behind the scenes as during games, to put him in position to be fresh for the playoffs.
The Rockets really don’t practice during the season. They hold glorified walk-throughs on some non-game days, when Harden’s on-court work essentially consists of a shooting routine that lasts about 15 minutes. He hungers for more work, and for much of the season, Harden would have intense one-on-one sessions with teammates taking turns guarding him, working to hone his skills as arguably the best isolation player in the history of the game.
Those sessions have been halted during the second half of the season as the Rockets nurse bumps and bruises, Harden’s in particular. He has dealt with a cervical strain that caused him to miss a game, a sore right wrist and a bruised left shoulder. But he refuses to take a game off for load management — “I just love to hoop,” he says — and has to be convinced that less is more when it comes to on-court work on off days.
“It’s a fight,” Lucas said. “Because he’s a routine guy, it’s a fight. It’s always a compromise. I’m not stupid, I always find a compromise.”
The Rockets rarely have shootarounds. Instead, Harden comes to the arena on game-day mornings to get table work, a combination of stretching and massage.
Harden does consistently get in extra work after games, often a combination of extra shooting on the practice court with player development coach Irv Roland and weightlifting with Gillett.
“We’ll do that just to get him extra meaningful conditioning right after the game,” Roland said. “That way, when the playoff comes and the intensity comes that you’ve got to reach, he’s in that mode. We started that last year.”
For a stretch after the All-Star break, it appeared that fatigue might be taking its toll on Harden, even though the Rockets were winning at the league’s best clip in that span. His shooting percentages had dipped significantly, from 44 percent from the floor and 37 percent from 3-point range during the break to 41 percent and 26 percent, respectively, in a span of almost a month after the break.
Harden’s efficiency in isolations, of which he runs more than three times as many as anyone else in the league, had also plummeted. Per Second Spectrum, he averaged 0.96 points per possession on 21.4 isos per game in that span, down from a ridiculous 1.15 points per on 19.9 isos per game before the break.
Then Harden exploded for 118 points in a two-game span, scoring 57 in an overtime loss on the second night of a back-to-back in Memphis and 61 in the win over the Spurs. Yeah, let’s table the talk about how tired he looks as Harden winds down the most efficient 36-plus-point-per-game season in NBA history.
The Rockets would also remind you that Harden held up fine in the playoffs last season, although his 3-point percentage dipped to 29.9 in the postseason. He scored 32 points in each of the last two games of the 2018 West finals, but the Rockets couldn’t beat the Warriors with Paul in street clothes due to a strained hamstring.
“I think the media’s kind of painted this picture like he doesn’t show up in big games or something, which, if you pay attention, it’s false,” Roland said. “He had  in Game 7 against the Warriors. I mean, he was sharp throughout the whole playoffs.
“So hopefully we can take that a step further and get a whole ‘nother series out of it.”