In the not so distant past, James Harden was described by Suns head coach Alvin Gentry as a top 10 player in the NBA on Arizona Sports 620 and media types were throwing around the words "max contract" for Harden's upcoming deal.
Unfortunately for the former Arizona State Sun Devil and sixth man of the year, his first visit to the NBA Finals has not gone smoothly. Through four games Harden is averaging 10 points on 35 percent shooting, 28 percent from three and shooting 72 percent from the foul line, which has been one of the biggest reasons Oklahoma City trails the Miami Heat 3-1.
He has scored less than 10 points in three of the four games. To put that in perspective in 76 prior games, playoff and regular season included, Harden had only scored less than 10 points four times total.
This is far from a career defining moment for the former first round pick. Harden is only 22 years old and still developing as a player, but seeing him struggle like this is surprising considering the maturity he showed the three previous series.
In the Thunder's Game Four loss, Harden was 2-10 from the field, 1-5 from three and only scored eight points. In the fourth quarter, he was 0-4 from the field, 0-2 from three and scored zero points.
The most concerning part about his performance was by the end of the game Harden looked hesitant and scared. With the Thunder trailing by five with just over two minutes left he came off a down screen and had a wide open shot. Instead of pulling the trigger immediately Harden looked to pass, couldn't find anyone and eventually settled for a contested 16 foot jump that was a brick.
This was coming off a 2-10 performance in Game Three - so if you're keeping track Harden is 4-20 (20 percent FG) in the last two games.
Part of the problem for Harden is he is getting asked to do more on the defensive end than he normally does. He has been assigned to guard LeBron James for long stretches of the past two games to try and keep Kevin Durant out of foul trouble.
Is it possible that this is impacting him on the other end of the court? Absolutely, but the game of basketball is played on two sides, not one.
Just because Harden has a tough defensive assignment doesn't give him a pass for disappearing as the Thunder's chance for a title goes from a strong storm to a light drizzle.
I don't believe this year's NBA Finals will impact Harden long term mentally or financially, even if he continues to struggle. There is too big of a sample size of excellent play and success to write him off because of one playoff series.
The problem is right now, in this moment, the long term doesn't apply. Oklahoma City needs Harden to be the player he is capable of being to have any chance to bounce back in this series.
If he doesn't, Thursday night, the Thunder will have to witness what they believed it was their time to do. Watching instead of celebrating as the Larry O'Brien Trophy is brought out to the floor.