MIAMI — It’s gotta be the shoes?
Or maybe the curse?
Or, more realistically, James Harden, he of the $200 million Adidas contract and the rekindled “curse” from rapper Lil B, is merely in a horrendous shooting slump that has his Houston Rockets and their inconsistent lineup sitting at 0-3.
After a confounding opening loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Rockets fell to the defending champion Warriors, both of those coming at home and by 20 points apiece.
Through three games, the Rockets are nothing if not consistent. They lost to the Miami Heat by 20 on Sunday as well, this one on the road, 109-89. This game, though, featured a 19-point Rockets lead at halftime, with Houston getting five 3-pointers from Marcus Thornton and forcing the Heat into 11 turnovers by the break.
The Heat got an inspiring, profanity-laced halftime lecture from co-captain Udonis Haslem, which seemed to ignite them in the third quarter. But the Rockets certainly participated in their own downfall, shooting 5-of-17 in the third quarter, with seven turnovers.
Headlining the uneven play was Harden. Last season’s MVP runner-up and self-proclaimed best player in the league was 2-of-15 from the field, including 0-of-10 from 3-point range. If not for shooting 12-of-14 from the foul line and making seven assists with three steals, Harden’s line would’ve been a total eyesore.
So far this season, Harden has made just 12 of 54 field goal attempts (22.2 percent) and is 3-of-32 from 3-point range (9.3 percent).
“I’m just shooting my shots that I normally shoot,” Harden said. “I’m not really trying to think about it too much. As good of a shooter as I am, I’m still going to have struggles throughout the season. This is the first couple games, so it’s tough. But just stay with it.”
To be fair to Harden, his Rockets have already started the season with three different lineups. Dwight Howard missed his second game, as the team is being cautious with his nagging back issue, and Terrence Jones missed Sunday’s game with a cut above his right eye.
Combine that with the adjustment period necessary to acclimate new starting point guard Ty Lawson, and the Rockets are a mess early on.
But they still weren’t supposed to look this bad. Not when the team was so adept at overcoming injuries and absences last season.
“We haven’t had a rhythm yet, from training camp or preseason at all,” Harden said. “We have guys in and out the lineup, bigs, guards, whatever. We’ll find a rhythm, we’ll catch a rhythm. We just have to continue to play hard, continue to stick with it, continue to have positive energy. We’ve lost three in a row, but we’re not really worried about it.
“We got 79 games [remaining]. Teams are gonna lose three games in a row. This is the NBA.”
Perhaps there should be a hint of concern, because last season’s Rockets didn’t lose three in a row all regular season. And Harden is supposed to be the player who can rescue the Rockets from this early-season hole, not be a primary reason for it.
Coach Kevin McHale, however, is either in full-scale denial, or simply protecting his superstar by not placing any of the blame on Harden’s poor shooting.
“We haven’t had a rhythm yet, from training camp or preseason at all. We have guys in and out the lineup, bigs, guards, whatever. We’ll find a rhythm, we’ll catch a rhythm. We just have to continue to play hard, continue to stick with it, continue to have positive energy.”
“It’s not James,” McHale said. “It has nothing to do with James. It has to do with our team. We’re 0-3. That’s [about] playing better on the defensive end when our shots aren’t going.
“We had a rhythm in the first half, the ball was moving. We just didn’t sustain that. For us to play, especially when we have to go small like that, and we don’t have a stretch big that’s going to make shots, we have to move the ball, attack.”
The Rockets had no answer for Hassan Whiteside in the second half Sunday, in large part because of the absences of Howard and Jones, and the inexperience of Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell. Whiteside finished with 25 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks and 3 steals. The Rockets scored 26 points in the entire second half.
“We stopped moving the ball, we stopped cutting for each other,” Harden said. “Obviously, they made a run, and we just never regrouped. We’re right there. I mean, we’re right there. Tomorrow we just have to bounce back. We’ll be all right.”
It’s quite possible the Rockets could be echoing these exact same thoughts on Monday night, however.
They’re facing the 3-0 Thunder on the second night of a back-to-back. In a Western Conference that remains ruthless, extending this poor start for much longer could have severe consequences.
“We’ve got to get better as a team,” McHale said. “We’re not where we want to be in many, many areas. That’s just where we’re at.”