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Rockets advance, but something's not quite right with Harden

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

May 9, 2018 12:02 AM

USATSI_10825200_168384654_lowres
Chris Paul and James Harden head for the next round, vs. the Warriors.
© USA Today Sports Images

What’s wrong with James Harden? That’s the key question entering the NBA Western Conference finals now that Houston and Golden State have advanced. That, plus a Sixers-Celtics preview, a busy night in the bases, and exchange odds for golf’s popular Players Championship right now in VSiN City.

NBA Tuesday: Houston ousts Utah, but slumping James Harden just isn’t right 
If there was one thing NBA twitter agreed on Tuesday night during Houston’s 112-102 victory over Utah to finish out a 4-1 second round series victory, it’s that something was wrong with James Harden. Let’s quickly run through the box score, then look more specifically at the more-than-circumstantial evidence that Harden isn’t his usual self. 

Houston (-11.5) 112, Utah 102
2-point Pct: Utah 53%, Houston 50%
3-pointers: Utah 10/28, Houston 18/39
Free Throws: Utah 16/21, Houston 14/17
Rebounds: Utah 41, Houston 40
Turnovers: Utah 12, Houston 9
Pace: 91.1 (for the series, 96.8, 103.2, 99.7, 98, 91.1) 

A huge slowdown in this spot even though the game went Over the total by a few buckets. That was thanks to the 28 of 67 performance on three-pointers. Big trey nights can make slow games look fast on the scoreboard. 

Now, let’s get to Harden. 

Harden Three-Pointers by Game
7 of 12
2 of 10
2 of 8
1 of 7
1 of 7

Great start to the series in the opener. Just 6 of 32 since from long range. He didn’t have to be dangerous on 3-pointers for the Rockets to beat Utah. He will need to shine at least four times for Houston to upset Golden State. 

Harden Free Throw Attempts by Game
11
13
7
8
4

Here, the change in form didn’t happen until Game 3 in Utah. But, you can tell that Harden stopped attacking the basket as aggressively, and stopped drawing fouls. Only 12 free throw attempts in the last two games, after averaging 12 per game in the first two.

Harden Assists by Game
7
11
12
3
4

Big drop the last two. So, the dramatic fall-off is most isolated in the last two games. Here he totaled seven assists in Games 4 and 5, after that total was his worst of the first three games. 

Bottom line…Harden hasn’t been hitting treys since the end of Game 1…hasn’t been earning the expected free throw trips since the end of Game 2…and hasn’t been getting many assists since the end of Game 3. He’s been only a shadow of his usual self in the last two games, reminiscent of a fade-out in the San Antonio series last season.

Is he battling an unreported injury? Is he wearing down from the heavy load he’s had to carry all season? Steph Curry is fresh as a daisy because he missed so much time with an injury. 

NBA Tuesday: Golden State explodes in third quarter to finish off New Orleans
A less than sharp first half was followed by a 25-4 dash to start the third quarter. Golden State is ready for the big challenge that awaits. Though, neither Golden State nor Houston were ready to cover big point spreads in their respective finales. 
 
Golden State (-12) 113, New Orleans 104
2-point Pct: New Orleans 48%, Golden State 56%
3-pointers: New Orleans 10/24, Golden State 7/24
Free Throws: New Orleans 12/16, Golden State 10/12
Rebounds: New Orleans 44, Golden State 53
Turnovers: New Orleans 14, Golden State 12
Pace: 104.4 (for the series 104.3, 110.5, 103.6, 107.3, 104.4)

This finished very late, so no time to dig deep into the stats. No surprises to be uncovered with a shovel anyway. Only worth mentioning again that this version of the Warriors doesn’t need a big night on three-pointers to win comfortably. Too many in the media aren’t noticing that. Percentages by game were 41%, 33%, 29%, 33%, and 26%. Strong opener, just a peak of 33% from that point forward. 

NBA Wednesday Preview: Philadelphia hopes to mount historic comeback, down 3-1 at Boston
No NBA team has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. That’s a loaded stat, though. Usually the pre-series favorite doesn’t fall behind 3-0 in a series! The bulk of that “history” is lesser teams failing to climb out of big holes. Philadelphia at least has a chance to come back because…

*It’s perceived as the superior team, even now given the road price in Boston
*It’s a young team that shouldn’t get tired, and can learn from its mistakes
*It’s capable of reaching a higher ceiling than Boston if its treys ever start to fall
*It’s likely to win the rebound battle every game

Still, down 3-1 IS a deep hole. And, Philadelphia isn’t playing like a team that’s ready to win on the road. The Sixers would have to win on the road twice to write their names in the history books. 

Boston at Philadelphia (6:05 p.m. ET. on TNT, Boston leads series 3-0)
Game 1: Boston (plus 4.5, 205) 117, Philadelphia 101
Game 2: Boston (plus 3.5/205.5) 108, Philadelphia 103
Game 3: Boston (plus 9.5/205) 101, Philadelphia 98 in overtime (89 regulation)
Game 4: Philadelphia (-6.5/204.5) 103, Boston 92
Game 5: Philadelphia pick-em or -1, total of 204.5

We’re seeing both pick-em and Philly -1 as we go to press late Tuesday night. Decided to post both options. 

Boston won by 16 and 5 at home. But, it’s important to remember that the Celtics were 17 of 36 and 15 of 36 on treys in those two games. If Philadelphia would just commit to guarding the arc with enthusiasm, (which it did a better job of doing at home…holding the Celtics to 10 of 38 and 11 of 32), it’s far from a sure thing that Boston will close things out. This series is “probably” over, because Boston only has to win one of two potential coin flips at home to advance, and is capable of wining on the road if needed. It’s not “definitely” over just yet.

We’ll run the box score stats for you tomorrow. Game 6 if necessary would be Friday in Philadelphia. 

MLB: Yankees win as huge favorites over Red Sox…why are the Bronx Bombers so pricey?
First, let’s quickly check the key game stats in the biggest marquee matchup of Tuesday night. Then, we’ll ponder why the Yankees were such exorbitant favorites in a rivalry game. 

NY Yankees (-220) 3, Boston 2
Total Bases Plus Walks: Boston 10, NY Yankees 18
Starting Pitchers: Pomeranz 6 IP, 2 ER, Severino 6 IP, 2 ER
Bullpen: Boston 2 IP, 1 ER, NY Yankees 3 IP, 0 ER

Giancarlo Stanton hit two home runs for the Yankees, adding his name to the lore of this fabled rivalry. The Yankees stellar bullpen will put them in great shape to win whenever the starting pitcher can give them six good innings. That’s part of why Luis Severino was so expensive tonight. The Yankees are 7-1 in his starts because he’s likely to get them to the guys who slam the door (after doing his fair share of slamming himself). 

Bigger edge in “offensive bases” than the final score would have suggested. It typically takes four bases to make a run. Divide both of those by four and you get the Yankees winning 4.5 to 2.5, which would be a better representation of what happened given the two homers by the hosts and zero walks drawn by the visitors.

Okay…why are the Yankees suddenly so expensive? Heading into Tuesday's game with Boston, this information fueled that high price…

*New York was 15-1 its last 16 games
*New York was 6-1 in that run against Houston and Cleveland, projected divisional winners
*New York was 9-1 against quality if you throw in the road sweep at the LA Angels
*New York’s first two wins in that stretch were against Toronto, who currently has a winning record. 

New York didn’t go 15-1 (now 16-1) against the worst teams in baseball. New York went 3-0 against Minnesota, and then 12-1 (now 13-1) against some high-quality challenges. New York took three out of four on the road at defending World Champion Houston, winning scoreboard 15-7.

Yes…teams can get hot. That doesn’t mean they should be laying more than -200 against high quality divisional rivals. Well, that’s the kind of thing people were saying last year about the Los Angeles Dodgers during that torrid regular season tear where so many pieces were in place and the boys in blue just crushed people.

The Dodgers were 35-25...then they were 51-26 (16-1 run)…then they were 66-29 (15-3 and 31-4 runs)…and then they were 79-32 (13-3, 28-6, and 44-7 runs)…and then they were 91-36 (12-4, 25-7, 40-10, and 56-11 runs). When you have a stellar offense that will consistently put runs on the board, AND a starting rotation that can get you quality innings, AND a bullpen whose best arms are almost untouchable for an inning at a time…you are capable of dominating this sport at this current moment of evolution. 

Tuesday’s market price of Severino -220 (or so) over Pomeranz was a reflection of the difference in starting pitchers AND the market realizing that the Yankees look to have the pieces in place in a way that could approximate what the Dodgers did last season. They just buried Cleveland, Houston, and the Angels. 

The early line for Wednesday’s second game of the series is Tanaka -175 over Porcello (plus 155), with a total of 9 (Over -115).

MLB: “Big Maple” not surreptitious in first no-hitter for Canadian in Canada
When you’re 6’4” and throw the ball 100 miles-per-hour, you’re not going to quietly sneak up on anybody. That’s how Tuesday’s no-hitter thrown by Seattle’s James Paxton helped create our lamest subhead ever! Sorry, you’ve got to get syrup in there if the guy’s nickname is “maple.”

Paxton shut down the Toronto Blue Jays on 99 pitches in a 5-0 shutout, becoming the first native born Canadian (Ladner, British Columbia) to throw a Major League no-hitter on native soil. “Big Maple” improved his record to 2-1 this season, lowering his ERA to 3.41. Seattle is 5-3 in his eight starts. The Mariners were a -120 favorite, and are now 20-14 (12-6 on the road) in what’s shaping up as an entertaining race in the AL West. Toronto falls to 19-17 (9-8 at home). 

MLB: Addendum to our “getaway day” conversation Tuesday
VSiN City reader Paul M. alerted us to a great point we left out yesterday. One of the factors that helps reduce scoring in getaway games is that many managers will rest key players in a “day-game-after-night-game” scenario. Many Sunday games (or midweek afternoon spots) fall into that category. So, not only is there a tendency for hitters to swing away with a plane to catch, but there are also cases where inferior lineups are on the field. Thanks Paul for the heads up on that. Hope all of you feel free to drop us a note with any comments or questions about what you read in the newsletter

Be sure you’re not betting Overs any time a major offensive threat is taking a day off unless you believe a line has over-adjusted. Now, the markets do react to lineup changes when they’re announced. But, the combination of “rest” and “getaway” tendencies can be tough to capture on a team-by-team basis unless you really do your homework. 

Golf: Players Championship begins Thursday at TPC Sawgrass
It’s called “the fifth major” because it always features a high-quality field at a crowd-pleasing site. But, the uniqueness of this course often creates wide-open leaderboards. Over the last 10 years, look at the marquee names and variety of winners from across the globe. 

2008: Sergio Garcia (Spain)
2009: Henrik Stenson (Sweden)
2010: Tim Clark (South Africa)
2011: KJ Choi (South Korea)
2012: Matt Kuchar (USA)
2013: Tiger Woods (USA)
2014: Martin Kaymer (Germany)
2015: Rickie Fowler (USA)
2016: Jason Day (Australia)
2017: Si-Woo Kim (South Korea)

That’s three winners from the USA, two from South Korea, and one apiece from Spain, Sweden, South Africa. Germany, and Australia. Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy may not be on the list, but several prominent stars are.

That dynamic helps create more attractive betting prices because “anyone can win” makes it hard for bettors to focus on just one or two threats. Here were the returns overseas for the sport’s biggest names Tuesday night at the Betfair exchange. (You can click this link for current prices. Remember to subtract “one” from the number you see in blue to determine the profit on a one-unit bet, then do the same for the number you see in pink to determine what you have to risk to win one unit. That link is live, and will update in real time throughout the weekend.)

Jason Day: bet one to win $16.50, risk $17 to win $1 that he won’t win
Jordan Spieth: bet one to win $17, risk $17.50 to win $1 that he won’t win
Rory McIlroy: bet one to win $17, risk $17.50 to win $1 that he won’t win
Justin Thomas: bet one to win $18, risk $18.50 to win $1 that he won’t win
Dustin Johnson: bet one to win $22, risk $23 to win $1 that he won’t win 
Rickie Fowler: bet one to win $22, risk $23 to win $1 that he won’t win
Jon Rahm: bet one to win $27, risk $28 to win $1 that he won’t win
Henrick Stenson: bet one to win $29, risk $31 to win $1 that he won’t win
Justin Rose: bet one to win $35, risk $37 to win $1 that he won’t win
Patrick Reed: bet one to win $39, risk $41 to win $1 that he won’t win

Other Notables:
Tiger Woods: bet one to win $41, risk $43 to win $1 that he won’t win
Phil Mickelson: bet one to win $47, risk $49 to win $1 that he won’t win
Sergio Garcia: bet one to win $47, risk $49 to win $1 that he won’t win

Tiger Woods is 41/1, slightly better than Phil Mickelson at 47/1. You may have heard that those two are in the same grouping the first two days. You can be sure Woods vs. Mickelson will be a popular “matchup” option posted by sports books all over the world. 

Some attractive prices for the world’s elite players. But, picking a winner will be tough because those elites are all trying to best each other, AND any hot “off the radar” performances like that of Si-Woo Kim last year. 

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