This play midway through the fourth quarter of James Harden’s historic effort at Madison Square Garden was largely reminiscent of what the Houston Rockets’ offense has looked like lately:
He got the ball.
He kept it for 16 seconds.
He dribbled it 21 times.
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What Harden has done in his last five games — 261 points, 52.2 points per game, zero assisted by a teammate — is astounding by any measure. He’s averaged 43.1 points in his last 21 games, keeping Houston in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The Rockets have alternated wins and losses in each of their last 10 games, despite Harden’s greatness of late.
Earlier this month, Houston guard Austin Rivers described the Rockets’ playbook like this to Sports Illustrated: “James Harden. Just get the (bleep) out of his way. Let him do the heavy lifting.”
That philosophy should be coming to an end before long.
Rockets point guard Chris Paul will be back soon from his latest tale of hamstring woe, maybe even as early as Friday against Toronto. When that happens, Harden will no longer have to take on so much of the scoring load.
His numbers should dip.
The Rockets should rise because of that, strange as it sounds. Fantasy players won’t like it so much, but for Houston, it’s vital.
Over the last five games, Harden has scored 44 percent of Houston’s points, taken 35 percent of its field-goal tries, attempted 57 percent of its free throws. It’s simultaneously a Herculean and unsustainable undertaking, and when Paul comes back Harden should get some relief — and take it happily.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Harden said, repeating a familiar refrain.
Houston was at its best last year — remember, the Rockets did have the NBA’s best record and was probably a hamstring strain by Paul away from winning the NBA title — when Harden was great and part of a system. He’s been the entire system, or so it has seemed, since Paul got hurt in Miami a few weeks ago. On the play where he dribbled 21 times against the Knicks on Wednesday, three of his four teammates basically stood around and watched, while a fourth thought about setting a screen that wasn’t going to get used anyway.
“He’s such a good scorer,” Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic said earlier this month of Harden. “You have to stay aggressive but you can’t foul him. He’s going to score. You’re not going to stop him. He has the ball so much and they run everything for him.”
Soon, they might not have to run so much for him. A lot, yes. But not everything.
And if the Rockets are going to emerge from the West, that’s the way it’ll need to be.
This run has probably lifted Harden back atop the MVP race. He’s as close to a lock to be the scoring champion as one can be in January — he leads Anthony Davis by 7.0 points per game. Harden’s average of 36.3 points is the highest since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points in 1986-87, and his lead over the No. 2 scorer is the league’s largest gap since Jordan outscored Dominique Wilkins by 8.1 points for that ’86-87 title.
“Everybody wants to do different schemes on him to try to slow him down and he still scores,” Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. “It really doesn’t matter. I think it’s just up to us to try to figure out the spots we want to get into.”
Harden scored a career-high 61 points against the Knicks on Wednesday night, one of the most memorable performances at Madison Square Garden. The Rockets needed darn near every one of them, as they eked out a four-point win. And Harden often went it alone, single-handedly bringing back the iso ball scheme that hasn’t really been part of today’s wide-open, five-out NBA.
It’s been great fun to watch.
It’ll be better for Houston when normalcy returns.
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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com