The Rockets (27-20) are about to face another significant test this season with the Toronto Raptors (36-14) in town tonight. James Harden is still on his tremendous scoring tear, averaging 36.3 points per game to go along with 6.6 rebounds and 8.3 assists.
Keep in mind, those are his season averages. In the month of January, Harden is averaging a whopping 45.3 points per contest.
Teams have become very creative in their defending of Harden. Both the Milwaukee Bucks and L.A. Lakers used somewhat gimmicky zone-type defenses to funnel Harden into their bigs, but the Raptors likely won’t resort to such measures thanks to Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard is appropriately nicknamed “The Klaw,” and is widely regarded as one of, if not the best, perimeter defenders in the entire league.
Harden going at Leonard is like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
Historically, Leonard has had the upper hand on Harden, with a handful of their head-to-head battles even dating back to Harden’s days in OKC.
In 19 regular season match-ups, Harden is 8-11 against the former Spur, and has averaged 24.6/5.7/6.6, while Leonard has put up 17.6/5.6/2.1 and a couple of steals.
But this is a new Harden we’re seeing this season. With his new signature “Swag-Step” he’s practically impossible to guard. Harden’s currently doing things offensively the NBA hasn’t seen since peak Kobe Bryant.
If there was ever another player talented enough to break Bryant’s 81-point single-game scoring record, the reigning MVP at his current level of play would be the man to do it. Not to mention it would be quite poetic if it happened against the Raptors, the very team Bryant scorched for 81 back in the day.
Aside from what is sure to be a tremendous battle between the Beard and the Klaw, the rest of the Rockets desperately need to pick up their level of play.
Against the Knicks, players not named Harden combined for an abysmal 53 points on just over 38 percent shooting.
A ray of hope for fans is that Chris Paul was upgraded to “questionable” for tonight’s game. Even a rusty Paul would be a huge boost to the currently depleted roster. A roster that in recent games has trotted out the likes of James Nunnally and Kenneth Faried as rotation players before the ink on their contracts had even finished drying.
Harden has had the team planted squarely on his shoulders for a while now, but even after dropping a career-high 61 points at the Garden, I’m expecting another iconic performance from him tonight. Set your watches ladies and gentlemen, it’s Harden time.
Prediction: Rockets 117 – Raptors 111