James Harden was spectacular last night, as he has been for much of this season, dicing up a stingy Pacers defense. However, he needs to bring it against Golden State on Wednesday if he wants to thrust himself back to the forefront of the MVP conversation. Saturday was a very forgettable night for Harden, the league’s leading scorer, as he finished with just 12 points on 4-15 shooting. I mentioned on Twitter, during the game, that Harden didn’t look like himself. Several of you responded insinuating that the disparity in his production was obviously to be attributed to Klay Thompson and the Warriors defense.
James Harden doesn’t turn the heat down for long. He bounced back from one of his worst games of the season to stir-fry the Indiana Pacers with a season-high 45 points. He brought out the spoon after a dagger three late in the fourth, stirring the Pacers as he jogged back on defense. He turned back around, buried another three, and had no choice but to use both hands, the defining moment of the game. Harden might have lost the battle to Steph Curry, but he doesn’t intend to lose the war, and today the Indiana Pacers were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The good news for the Pacers is that they’ve got a great head coach in Frank Vogel, a solid defensive system and a two-way star player on the bench in Paul George. The bad news on January 19th is that they had to face off with Houston, a very good team coming off a very bad loss. The Pacers kept it at around ten points most of the night, and even closed it back up in the fourth after the Rockets had ballooned the lead to over twenty. They did a lot with a little, but in the end it was too late. James Harden, Dwight Howard, and the supporting cast of the Rockets were just too talented and too coordinated.
The Houston Rockets aren’t good enough. Sure, 28-13 is good for homecourt in the first round, a pace for 56 teams and an improvement in the first round. The Rockets have been beating tough teams, winning with solid defense and have a legitimate MVP candidate on the team. This is probably the best Rockets team we’ve seen in twenty years in probably the best Western Conference we’ve seen in decades. There’s little reason for anything except effusive praise and recognition of how good of a team Daryl Morey’s front office has built.
Losing in a drubbing to the best team in the league is a good reminder that they still need to get better.
Is there anything the Golden State Warriors can’t do? As this season hits the midpoint, the only thing the Warriors have to prove anymore is that they can stay healthy long enough to win a championship. Even when MVP hopeful Steph Curry shoots a miserable 2-8 from three point range, the Warriors can still dissect the #2 defense in the league for 131. The point, however, is not that the Warriors are good. The point is that with that team out there, the bar has been raised for the rest of the NBA, especially the meat grinder that is the west. Tonight, we saw what happens when a team vaults face-first into that bar.
James Harden, in particular, took in on the chin. Klay Thompson did as good a job defensively as anyone’s done on Harden all season on a night when James’ game temporarily left him. 12 points on 15 shots isn’t anyone’s idea of efficiency, and his 4 boards and 4 assists were sub-par, even for a mere 30 minutes of play. Foul trouble kept him out much of the game, and garbage time forced him to some early rest at the end. With Harden disrupted at best and sitting at worst, the Houston offense sputtered and died at times. The 106 point total says more about the pace of the game than about the shooting, which was a miserable 42% overall.
I don’t know when these games against the Oklahoma City Thunder will stop feeling like a chance at retribution for James Harden, but that time was certainly not last night.
Watching Harden square up against his old teammates is always exciting because it still conjures up feelings of what could have (should have?) been for the Thunder. Typically, Harden feels like the underdog in these match-ups with his more acclaimed ex-teammates; the third banana gone rogue. But this year has been different, with Harden playing at a pace-setting MVP level, and the Durant/Westbrook combo stuck in second gear after injuries derailed both their first quarter-season.
On a night when the Rockets were playing their third game in four nights, traveling up and down the east coast before returning home, Harden was one rebound away from his second triple-double of the season. The Beard easily outclassed Durant and Westbrook, who had just 40 points and 12 turnovers combined (the Rockets had 12 TO’s as a team, Harden only 2) and hadn’t played since last Friday. Some call that rust, I call it rest.
But even with the Thunder coming in so fresh, the Rockets came out scorching, scoring 40 points in the first quarter (their most in any quarter this season) and leading by 22 after one. In fact, Houston took the lead for good after a James Harden catch-and-shoot 3 made it 7-4 just a little more than two minutes into the first. The Thunder never even got back inside a ten point deficit after the Rockets made it 14-4 with eight minutes still to go in the opening period.
There wasn’t a defender on OKC who could stay in front of Harden. And even when Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook, only two of the most athletic players in the league, trapped on the pick-and-roll, Harden crossed-over and split the defense before jamming it down for the dunk of the night.