ATLANTA – Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale is doing his best not to feed the hype where James Harden is concerned. Really, he’s trying not to read too much into the numbers Harden has put up through two games in a Rockets uniform.
It would help if Harden wasn’t on pace to win a scoring title, MVP honors and lead the Rockets into the playoffs.
Laugh if you want, but Harden’s stock is soaring this week. The unstoppable former Sixth Man supreme in Oklahoma City has turned into a defender’s worst nightmare since being traded to Houston last weekend.
Harden is basically unstoppable, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound lefty who can do it all — score, handle, pass and even defend — while also showing the unique ability to step from the shadows, so to speak, and into the spotlight without blinking.
He topped his 37-point, 12-assist, 6-rebound, 4-steal debut in a win over Detroit with an even more jaw-dropping and career-high 45-point, 7-rebound, 2-steal showcase in a 109-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks Friday night at Philips Arena.
“I hope [he does], but I doubt he’s going to average 37, 12 and whatever,” McHale joked before Harden unleashed on the Hawks, who tried everything but simply had no answer for a player capable of beating you from every angle.
Harden’s season stats after two games — 41 PPG, 63.6% FG, 87% FT, 42.9% 3PT, 6.5 RB, 7 AS, 2ST, 4.5 TO, 2.5 PF — say it all.
His 82 combined points are the most by a non-rookie in his first two games with a new team in league history. And he joins Wilt Chamberlain (106 in 1962-63, 105 in 1961-62 and 86 in 1965-55) and Michael Jordan (91 in 1986-87) on the list of the top five scoring starts through two games in league history.
Harden’s doing this in roughly six more minutes per game than he played in last season, when he took home Kia Sixth Man of the Year honors and helped the Thunder reach The Finals. If he keeps this up, he’ll be in the running for some other Kia-sponsored hardware, along with a spot as a player/host during All-Star Weekend in Houston in February.
These first two games have been the ideal platform for Harden to show off the fact that he’s got the chops to be a headliner and not just a candidate for best supporting actor.
“I was just trying to make plays,” Harden said after torching the Hawks. “My teammates were looking for me, and I just was able to score the basketball. But it wasn’t just me. Chandler (Parsons) hit a big three, and Jeremy (Lin) hit a big three, so guys were stepping up at big times.”
No one is happier to see Harden in a Rockets uniform than Lin, who stroked the Hawks for 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists of his own. Lin doesn’t have to worry about being the face of the franchise hand the pressure that come with that distinction as long as Harden keeps doing what he’s doing.
“I always felt for Jeremy, it’s so hard to live up to the Linsanity hype and all of that,” McHale said. “Jeremy’s a very good basketball player. James allows him to go out there and do just that, be a very good basketball player. And together, they can be really good together. When we made that trade, though, the guy who was happiest about it and was calling up everybody to make sure we were going to do it was Jeremy Lin.”
Harden has embraced the spotlight that comes with his new role.
“It is different,” he said. “It’s a lot different having the entire offense run through you. But that’s my job now, and I accept that.”
He’s been a model teammate, too, according to McHale. But he’ll have to continue to adjust to the increased attention. He’s no longer the third bullet point on the opposing team’s scouting report, like he was in Oklahoma City. And with that No.1 spot comes added attention that require Harden’s undivided attention.
“He’s going to have nights where he’s gonna draw two [defenders] and is just going to have to make the easy plays and play out of it,” McHale said, “because three guys cannot guard four guys behind you. I told him, you’re probably going to see more of that than ever before. Don’t let it frustrate you and keep making those plays. You do it enough and he’ll get back to those opportunities where he gets to play one-on-one.”
After seeing Harden the past eight quarters, those numbers don’t really seem to matter … at least not to Harden!