Poor George Hill.
Poor Solomon Hill, poor C.J. Miles and poor Ian Mahinmi.
The poor, poor Indiana Pacers.
When James Harden is in attack mode, all you can do is pity the
fool opposing team, primarily whatever sucker gets tasked with attempting to wrangle the Beard on a given play.
And Monday night in Indiana, Harden was in attack mode. He ended the night with 44 points, thanks in large part to sinking 21(!) of his 22(!!) attempted free throws. And this wasn’t the ref-baiting, flop-master that so many Harden detractors detest. This was the expert scoring machine that knows how to protect his space with the ball and penetrate the defender’s all at the same time.
As much as I cherish listening to Bill Worrell talk basketball, I get a real kick out of listening to opposing broadcasts digest this Rockets team. Harden’s Morey-Ball. Dwight Howard’s post game. Josh Smith’s J-Smoove-ness. There is a lot to take in. And last night Chris Denari and Quinn Buckner saw a whole lot of Harden rocking his defender to sleep, getting into the paint and attacking the rim, only to be sent to the stripe by another chop across the forearms by an unwitting assailant; all while the Pacers’ broadcast team were forced repeatedly to admit something along the lines of, “Yea, you can see the slap across his arms right there”.
But it wasn’t just on plays at the rim that Harden was drawing contact. The Pacers were hellbent on crowding Harden and playing him close, which only made things easier for the Beard. Any time a Pacer defender reached in or made too much body contact, Harden was ready to attack that space and make it his own, often drawing a whistle. And I won’t even say I don’t appreciate the way Harden’s critics feel about this type of strategy, but it keeps defenses out of his jersey and leaves him room to operate. Just don’t tell me that free throws are “the best shot in basketball”, then expect me to get indignant when a player excels at creating that particular shot.
But enough about the Beard, we’ll come back to him. As sublime as Harden was, the rest of the Rockets were excellent as well.
If it feels like I’m always talking nice about Josh Smith, it’s because I am. He has played well in just about every game I’ve covered this season, and last night was no different. Smith had 18 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. But the real surprise was how smooth his jumper looked last night. Smith shot 4-6 from deep, and while he did have one airball, his catch-and-shoot continued to look sharp. He even knocked down a 25-footer off the dribble with a hand in his face to beat the shot clock on one possession. I still prefer my Smoove as close to the rim as possible, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy life’s little gems.
Donatas Motiejunas chipped in 17 points, the most memorable being the fluid 31-footer he knocked down as time expired in the third quarter with four Pacers in his vicinity. He also had his usual craftiness around the rim, scoring on a bevy of hooks and drop-steps. Which leaves me wondering, with D-Mo and former-Rocket Luis Scola (miss you) facing off against each other in the same building, does that mean the rest of the NBA was up and under-less?
As for the rest of the Rockets, every player had a positive plus/minus (led by Joey Dorsey’s +14), Corey Brewer was the only other double-digit scorer (11) and Trevor Ariza had a game-high 11 boards. Pat Beverley picked up a wrist injury trying to snag a rebound, which was especially disconcerting because he knew right away that he was injured. He grabbed his wrist as he headed down court, but he didn’t make it three steps before turning to Kevin McHale for a substitution and immediately jogging back to the locker room. As of publication, no word on the extent of his injury.
But back to Harden.
In the month of March, Harden’s seemingly air-tight case for MVP has been dealt a Russell Westbrook-sized blow. After months of valiantly carrying a beat-up squad through the treacherous West, where one three-game losing streak can cost you 3-4 seeds in the standings, Harden finally let doubt creep back into the MVP conversation. With Steph Curry and the Warriors rounding out a 60-win season, and Russell Westbrook in the middle of his spot-on ’89 Jordan impersonation, Harden needed a strong finish to stay fresh in the voters’ minds.
Instead, pundits would have you believe Harden has played some of his worst basketball of the season this month, including the clunker he had in Utah two weeks ago. The reality, though, is that Harden’s March hasn’t been markedly different from the first four months of the season. His shooting percentages are the lowest they’ve been all year, but his assists, rebounds and even free throw attempts have held steady.
The problem really comes down to his legs. Essentially, for entire games this month, Harden has looked cooked.
Including last night, Harden has played 11 games in March. In six of those games, he has looked like himself, scoring 31.5 ppg, with 18.7 FTA and 39% from deep. All indicators that he’s fine. But in the other five games, Harden is averaging 16.8 ppg, with 7.2 FTA and 15% 3pt. That three-point percentage is very concerning, because tired legs equal a flat shot. Not to mention, pull-up jumpers look a lot more inviting than yet another foray into the land of giants when you’re spent, and less dribble-drives means less free throws.
I still think Harden is the front runner for MVP, but at this point I’d be more concerned about trying to navigate 4 rounds of brutal NBA playoffs than running Beard into the ground for a regular season award. Harden is third in minutes per game, but because he’s stayed healthy and hasn’t had a two week vacation mid-season (LEBRON), Harden actually leads the NBA in minutes played.
That’s another good reason to vote for him for MVP, but it’s also a big justification to let him have some rest down the stretch. With just 12 games to go, decisions have to be made.