One month ago, Dwight Howard went up against an Oklahoma City frontcourt which had little more than rookie center Steven Adams as well as the too thin Serge Ibaka. Yet despite the seemingly obvious advantages, he had a disastrous game, scoring just 9 points on 4-12 shooting. Rahat was incredibly worried about the result of that game, as he argued that the inability of Howard to dominate players which he should seemingly dominate like Adams or DeAndre Jordan boded poorly for Houston’s chances of a title, both over the short and long term.
That may or may not be true. But over the extremely short term like tonight? With Howard continuing to rest his ankle? James Harden did show up. He did dominate. He dropped 39 points, and showed up with crossover after tomahawk slam after 3 pointer after free throw and so on and so on. Combine that with Chandler Parsons and Francisco Garcia hounding Durant like they did so much during the 2013 playoffs, and it was the Thunder player who was traded here that willed the Rockets to an absolutely crucial victory. Just 24 hours ago, Houston was worried about losing their hard-fought home court advantage to the suddenly surging Portland Trailblazers. Now? With a win over the Thunder to make 50, a secured playoff spot, Portland losing to Phoenix tonight, and a upcoming creampuff schedule which has Houston facing only one playoff team ( although it is San Antonio) over the final 7 games? Fortune is a fickle mistress, but as of this moment, it appears that she has chosen to favor the Rockets after all.
It should be noted that despite Harden’s incredible performance, he hardly won the game all by himself. Indeed, Harden can show up on any night, against any team – but unfortunately, the same really cannot be said of Houston’s perimeter defense. However against the Thunder tonight, Chandler Parsons and Francisco Garcia did their jobs in hounding Kevin Durant. Parsons’s defensive effort in particular was great to see: for those who don’t remember, it was defending Kevin Durant when Chandler Parsons in his rookie year began to show that he was more than just a throwaway second round pick. Those first games are where Parsons picked up his reputation as a solid defender, but as his offensive role grew larger over the years, his defense slipped.
Tonight however was a blast to the past. It says something about how incredible Kevin Durant is that I can confidently declare that Parsons played solid defense on a night when Durant put up 28 points, his 40th straight game of 25 points or more, something which has been only accomplished by Oscar, Jordan, and Wilt. But Parsons was farther up in Durant’s face than I have seen Parsons in quite some time, chasing him all over the court. And when Parsons wasn’t, Garcia was there instead. Durant in fact grew frustrated by this constant harassment in the third quarter, and there was a minor spat between himself and Garcia. It didn’t knock Durant off or rattle his confidence, but it served as a reminder that even these Rockets can defend without having Asik and Howard do everything, which is just as big of a deal as Harden’s brilliant performance tonight.
But even with that perimeter defense, and with Terrence Jones coming back with a fury after missing two games with the flu and grabbing 16 points, 11 boards, and massively improving the interior defense? This game was about Harden. With LeBron and Durant doing their thing, and with Anthony Davis rising as Zach Lowe wrote about, it’s admittedly difficult to see the Beard winning a MVP in the next few seasons. Yet if Harden submitted something like tonight on a routine basis, who knows? Which players are the best, just like Houston’s playoff prospects, can change in the blink of an eye.