Over the last month, the dominant story around the NBA has been the play of Rockets’ star guard James Harden. Harden has averaged an astounding 44.1 points per game in January. He has kept the Rockets afloat in a deep Western Conference with a January record of 8-5, while key players such as guard Chris Paul and forward Clint Capela struggle with injuries.

While Harden’s month and regular season is undeniably impressive and perhaps the best of his career, scoring in the regular season has never been an issue for him. He has finished runner-up twice in the MVP race in 2015 and 2017, before winning the award last season. His vast drop-off in performance, however, has plagued Harden come playoff time.

Harden’s playoff difficulties started all the way back in 2012 in Oklahoma City, where a series of poor performances in the NBA Finals against the Heat dented the Thunder’s title hopes, and was one of the reasons the Thunder were open to trading him.

His struggles in the playoffs continued, as Harden, a 44 percent regular season shooter, shot under 40 percent in his first two seasons as a Rocket. The Rockets were bounced consecutively in the first round to the Thunder, who were without their star guard Russell Westbrook for most of the series in 2013, and to the Blazers, than whom they were seeded higher in 2014.

In 2015, Harden managed to lead the Rockets to the conference finals where they fell in five games to the Warriors. The following season, Harden once again lost in the first round, albeit to the 73-win Warriors. In 2017, Harden’s playoff woes struck again. He put up just 10 points facing a Spurs team without Kawhi Leonard in a home elimination game.

Last season, Harden once again reached the conference finals, but he missed 22 consecutive three-pointers over the course of the series and was unable to hold 15-point leads in consecutive games, as his Rockets team blew a 3-2 lead to the Warriors.

It is difficult to understand how a player who enjoys such an impressive track record in the regular season can have such pronounced struggles during critical moments in the playoffs.

Perhaps Harden’s struggles in the playoffs are because of fatigue, considering he has had to carry a heavy load during the regular season. However, there are numerous NBA stars who have not had the same drop-off in production. For example, Lakers forward LeBron James has a usage rate comparable to Harden’s, but James’ shooting percentage and effectiveness increase come playoff time.

An alternative explanation for Harden’s poor performance lies in the style of his game. Harden is perhaps more dependent than any other superstar on drawing fouls. The NBA asks that referees blow the whistle less in playoff games. Therefore, as playoff games become more physical, Harden struggles to get into an offensive rhythm because fewer of his attempts to draw fouls are rewarded.

With fewer fouls being called, opponents are more willing to guard him tighter and play more physically, which takes away many of the easy baskets Harden usually scores. Defenders are less afraid of being called for a foul.

Of course, it could be that the reason for Harden’s struggles, like many other athletes, is the nerves and pressure that important playoff games bring. Whatever the reason, we should all slow down on the Harden praise until we see this level of basketball replicated come playoff time.

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