OAKLAND — Once he'd finished swiping at curtains and kicking at chairs, James Harden sat placidly in front of his locker and slipped on a pair of pink and purple dress socks, contemplating a remarkable season that now stands on the precipice, thanks largely to the one man who outdistanced him in the Most Valuable Player race.
His Houston Rockets teammates continued to offer what they could, soft pats on the back and whispered words in his ear, and when Harden walked down a hallway and into the interview room underneath Oracle Arena, he accepted one last consolation from his coach, Kevin McHale.
“All right, big boy,” McHale said.
Really, what else could be said after Harden's first two games of this series, a pair of near triple-doubles that have both amounted to losses? If there was anyone who doubted Harden at least belonged in the MVP conversation right next to Stephen Curry, he shattered that impression over the first two games of this series. But it was that last fumbled possession in Houston's 99-98 Game 2 Western Conference Finals loss that will stick with Harden over the next couple of days; it was that last touch of the ball, when Harden was swarmed by both Curry and Klay Thompson and couldn't even get a shot off, that may haunt him throughout the summer if the Rockets wind up falling short in this series.
“They did a good job having two guys on me,” Harden said afterward. “I watched the film. Just a tough, tough play.”
At some point, McHale saw one Warrior player on the floor and another Warrior trapped out of bounds, so he chose not to call a timeout, to let it ride with the ball in his star player's hands. And at some point in the midst of that double-team, Harden said, he saw a flash of red, a teammate's jersey. That teammate was Dwight Howard. But by then, it was too late. By then, the ball had come loose, and McHale wasn't able to get the timeout he suddenly wanted, and the buzzer sounded, and Harden lay flat on the court, lamenting a shot that would never come. After more than 82 minutes on the floor, after hitting 24 of his 41 field goal attempts, after putting up 66 points and 21 rebounds and 18 assists over two games, Harden had come up one possession short of beating the Warriors on their home floor and returning the home-court advantage to the Rockets.
“I mean, you look at the box score and you don't think we did a very good job, but he's hitting tough shots,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He's a great player, just like Steph is a great player, and both those guys are playing at a very high level.”
At times, it felt like Harden and Curry were the only two players on the floor, exchanging baskets, going straight at each other as if this were an extended referendum on an MVP race that had already been decided. And when it was over, the runner-up had fallen short once again.