MIAMI, Fla. — With bloodshot eyes, Thunder reserve guard James Harden tried to explain perhaps his most excruciating nights in the NBA.
In the Thunder's 104-98 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, Harden shot just 2 for 10 from the field, 1 for 5 from 3-point range, had four turnovers and committed five fouls.
On a positive note, he finished with a team-high 10 rebounds, but managed just eight points — less than half his season average.
Harden missed shots from far and near at American Airlines Arena. Several wide-open attempts rattled in and out.
With 10:00 left in the game, Harden came up with a steal, but struggled to get his steps right and missed a driving layup.
And with nothing going right on offense, Harden then headed to the opposite end of the court, where his assignment much of the game was to defend league MVP LeBron James.
Despite all the struggles, Harden still played nearly 37 minutes for the simple reason his coach still believed in him.
"I believe in all of our guys," Scott Brooks said afterward. "James has put us in a position to be where we are. He had a tough shooting night, but he competed, he battled, he fought, he defended, he was guarding one of the best players in the game. I don't judge a guy's game on shots, on makes and misses. This game is about makes and misses.
"Some nights you're going to make those, some nights you're going to miss them, but your effort has to be there. I love James' effort and that's all I judge him on. If he wasn't playing hard, yes, I would have taken him out earlier and sat him and put somebody else in. We have a standard of play and effort-wise I think everybody lived up to it tonight."
A near-unanimous selection as this season's Sixth Man of the Year, Harden has struggled throughout the Finals, shooting 35.1 percent (13 for 37) from the field, 28.6 percent (4 for 14) from 3-point range and averaging 10.8 points the first four games.
During the regular season, Harden shot 49.1 percent from the field, 39.0 percent on 3-pointers and averaged 16.8 points.
"Of course, any basketball player would be frustrated if his shot's not falling, but you've got to stick with it," Harden said. "It's basketball. You don't make (all your) shots every single day, every single game. I've got to go back tomorrow in practice, work on my mechanics and be ready for Thursday."
While Harden answered every question thrown his way in a suffocating locker room scene, seemingly forgotten were Harden's heroics that helped OKC advance to the Finals in the first place.
Harden wasn't the No. 3 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft because of his defense. He primarily played zone defense at Arizona State and was too busy scoring points in high school to worry about the other end of the court.
Though Brooks has commended Harden's improvement at the defensive end, Harden was still no match for James, who finished with 26 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds and two steals — though not all against Harden.
"It's tough," the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Harden said of defending the 6-8, 260ish-pound James. "He has me by a couple of inches and a lot more power. He's big and strong. I just try my best to win that fight and compete every play."
Harden quickly got into foul trouble in the second half. He was whistled three times in the third quarter.
"It was tough," Harden said of playing with foul trouble. "It's tough when he makes his other teammates better. So then you can't really leave them — the shooters. And then he gets to the basket and creates for himself. He's a great player."