James Harden is singlehandedly willing the Houston Rockets to victory. On a night when an 18 point second quarter lead vaporized, James Harden returned to the game after smashing his elbow and scored 40 points in 43 minutes. Tonight’s win over the Suns was impressive, gutty, and important. It was also yet another signpost with “Harden needs some help” printed in massive bold letters. Josh Smith has been an absolute godsend to this Rockets team, a fact which is at once amazing and terrifying. James Harden is an absolute virtuoso on offense, and it’s both glorious and tragic.
Just how good was the beard tonight? His evil was unmatched and his cruelty was unchecked. He sank stepback after stepback to pull ahead of the Suns and inflict upon them the heartbreak the Rockets had suffered two nights before. He shot 14 free throws, and missed an uncharacteristic three of them, presumably just to create false hope. 13-23 shooting combined with those free throws to generate a truly absurd 40 points. He flirted with a triple double so hard that he might be engaged to it now: 12 rebounds and 9 assists with 3 steals and a block for good measure. He was unstoppable, his defense was defensible, and he wants that MVP trophy.
Harden’s greatest aid in victory was, again, somehow, somehow Josh Smith. Smith has undergone some sort of spiritual transformation, a process by which an inefficient but promising caterpillar goes to Houston and pupates for a couple weeks before re-emerging as a three-point hitting butterfly that abuses bench units. Maybe he just has more motivation when everyone else has less. Maybe he’s just really enjoying his place on the offense. Maybe he just finally was shorter than a coach and actually started listening to his instructions. Whatever the reason, Josh Smith is absolutely killing it right now, and keeps shooting threes at a blistering pace of 50% or better. When he’s accepting his role as sixth man point-forward du jour, he’s an unfairly cheap pickup for Houston: 20 points on 8-15 shooting with 6 rebounds isn’t fair for a player on the biannual exception.
Kostas Papanikolaou finally got some burn due to Terrence Jones sitting out (flu-like symptoms), and was the rare decent spot in a sea of slumping. Big Papa went 2-3 from deep and scored 8 points on 4 shots (and grabbed 4 boards), a perfectly reasonable way to play. Corey Brewer’s 14 points on 6-12 shooting and 7 rebounds was similarly decent, and Jason Terry chipped in a respectable 6 points on 4 attempts from three point range. The bench remains promising and largely effective. The problems arise when James harden is out of the game, and this issue transcends starter or bench status. The backups have honestly been more effective than the starters lately.
Dwight Howard’s garish suit may have been more watchable than the non-Harden starters. Patrick Beverley pulled back another abysmal night from the brink the the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points on 15 shots, largely due to his 3 makes on 10 three point attempts. He’s grabbing enough rebounds (6, tonight), and playing just enough defense to earn his starting spot, but he’s cutting it painfully close time and again. Luckily for him, he’s not alone in slumpsville. Joey Dorsey basically did nothing, hitting only 1 shot in his 4 tries, though 6 rebounds isn’t terrible in 17 minutes. Dorsey won’t continue to be an issue once Dwight returns, but in the interim it’s hard to watch him get outclassed on offense every night.
Donatas Motiejunas and Trevor Ariza both had lines which look solid enough on paper, but were less impressive in action. D-Mo played only 17 minutes due to foul trouble and he grabbed only 2 rebounds. His 5-9 shooting was good, of course, but such high percentage was only good for 12 points. If he had been able to stay out of foul trouble, Harden probably wouldn’t have had to play a whopping 43 minutes on the front end of a road back to back. Ariza’s 40% from deep came on 2-5 shooting, which is nice, but his overall line of 10 points on 9 shots was less efficient by far. Nobody not named Harden could get to the line, and nobody could stop the Suns in general. Ariza remains a valuable Swiss army knife with 5 rebounds and assists, but his game is spotty, something which may be helped by a week of rest.
This sort of performance is impressive from Harden, but concerning in the long term. When defenses clamp down, when half-court sets matter more, when the playoffs begin, Harden may not be able to create an entire NBA offense by himself. He needs another player to take off that load, to force defenses to spread their efforts out, and to help prevent nightly scoring droughts (tonight’s was over 3 minutes long). The Rockets are the very embodiment of streaky on offense, and if Harden doesn’t get some help soon, those streaks may just turn to losses.