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Victor Oladipo, Pacers

James Harden should have stepped up in crunch time instead of letting Russell Westbrook fail

The Houston Rockets fumbled away Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, 104-100, blowing a late six-point lead in the process. The Rockets managed just two points over the last 4:19 after James Harden hit a technical free throw following a Chris Paul air punch.

Those last few minutes were a comedy of errors for the Rockets, with Russell Westbrook at the center of it all as Harden took a backseat. Westbrook had several costly turnovers and a truly hideous pull-up jumper that got nothing but air (Harden made a nice save after the miss), plus a missed layup. The point guard did score the only two points for Houston during that stretch, but he was a destructive force for his own team.

Harden didn’t cover himself in glory, either. After his made free throw, he missed his final three 3-point attempts and committed a turnover. However, the two misses in the final minute were desperation heaves at the end of the clock.

Still, Harden needed to assert himself more down the stretch instead of letting Westbrook fail miserably, especially with Russ still trying to find a rhythm coming off his quad injury. Sometimes it can be hard to rein in Russ, but as the team leader, Harden should have taken matters into his own hands.

Stuff like this isn’t a good look for James Harden:

The Rockets’ last meaningful possession was a perfect example of the failure. After Paul hit two free throws to give the Thunder the lead with about 13 seconds left, the Rockets quickly inbounded the ball to Westbrook, who proceeded to push the ball up the court. The shot clock was turned off, and it was time to put up or shut up.

Westbrook dribbled his way into the paint in an effort to draw the defense, then rifled a pass toward Robert Covington, who stood on the perimeter. This seemed like a routine play, except for the fact that Westbrook’s pass sailed wide of its target and resulted in his seventh turnover of the night. The Rockets were forced to foul on the ensuing play, which led to a pair of game-sealing free throws by Danilo Gallinari.

Here’s a look at the closing moments of Monday night’s Game 6 matchup between the Rockets and Thunder:

With Westbrook struggling, Harden should have had the ball in his hands in the closing seconds, even though he had his own issues late in the game. Harden has come under fire in the past for coming up short in crucial playoff situations, and this kind of collapse doesn’t help his case, even though he had a strong game overall with 33 points on 11-of-22 shooting (3-of-11 from downtown), eight rebounds and seven assists.

Interestingly, Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni later noted that the play he drew up was one that Westbrook and Harden “wanted,” according to Mark Medina of USA TODAY Sports. Harden was supposed to receive the ball at the top of the key after a switch, but he struggled to get open and Westbrook tried taking matters into his own hands.

It didn’t go well, and both James Harden and Russell Westbrook will need to be better if they hope to advance. Russ owned up to his mistakes after the game, but Harden shouldn’t have put him in that position to begin with. If the Rockets find themselves in a similar situation in Game 7, Harden needs to take control of the offense, unless Westbrook is on a serious heater.

Game 7 is set to tip inside the NBA’s bubble complex on Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. ET. ESPN will have live broadcast coverage. It should be a treat, and it’s a huge game for the Rockets when it comes to their future.