It’s so rare that a star athlete puts forward such an unbelievably bad performance in a big game that observers immediately start reaching for out-there theories to explain what they are seeing, but what are we supposed to do with this?
It’s hard to watch the first turnover in that clip and not immediately send your mind racing. He had money on the game! He was drugged! He found out a teammate slept with his girlfriend! He was concussed! His final stats, 10 points and six turnovers on 2-of-11 shooting, don’t do much to quiet things down.
The Concussion Theory is the one that gained steam on Twitter last night, as the Washington Post has documented here. This theory relies on the fact that Harden caught an elbow to the face toward the end of Game 5, and looked just as listless through the end of that loss as he did all of last night.
(Stephen A. Smith trotted out the James Harden Was Drugged theory, along with the James Harden Quit On His Team theory.)
Harden assured everyone he was fine during his postgame press conference, and only offered being out of rhythm as an explanation for his performance. The Spurs do deserve some credit here—they did a great job of keeping their hands high and staying just far enough away on Harden’s drives to avoid fouls—but no amount of good defending can explain a no-show like this one.
It’s also worth remembering that this isn’t the first time Harden has crapped his shorts in an elimination game. It was just two years ago, in Game 5 against the Warriors, that he shot 2-of-11 and turned the ball over 12 times to end his season.
Does this mean James Harden is just a big fat choker who can’t handle the pressure? That explanation is just as solid as the one that blames last night on a concussion, which is to say it’s not very solid at all. Attempting to diagnose or psychoanalyze an athlete after a spectacular failure is almost always a useless exercise, and that’s precisely what makes nights like the one Harden had last night so frustrating to watch. All that’s certain is James Harden was inexplicably bad in Game 6, and that we’ll probably never know why.