In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.
At 25, James Harden is on track to become a perennial All-NBA contender for years to come.
Let’s get the elephant out of the way: James Harden is not a defensive specialist. His inattention to that end of the floor is common knowledge at this point. Long before a compilation of Harden’s defensive fails made its Internet rounds, Rockets fans were routine witnesses to his off-the-ball watching, feet-in-the-mud, swipe-around defense.
Like fellow perimeter non-defensive specialist Steve Nash (All-NBA first team from 2005-07), Harden plays with an innate feel for the game that warrants overlooking some blown coverages. The court vision is there. He is a deft passer. He uses his body and low center of gravity to find his way to the iron. Once he gets there, he is strong enough to finish through contact or earn a trip to the line, where he is near automatic.
For this reason alone, The Beard will be able to generate offense for a long time in the NBA. He is still young enough to make himself a stout deterrent. He plucked 1.6 steals per game last season, good for 17th in the league. He has quick, bear hands and a nose for the ball.
But that day may never come. Until then, his predictable yet unstoppable Euro-steps, old-man game and frequent scoring sprees should hold us over.
The Line: 28 points on 11-for-16 shooting, 16 in 4th quarter
The Quote: “Coming into the game I wanted to keep (teammates) involved and keep them going and try to get mine at the end. It played out well.” – Harden
VIDEO: Harden lights it up on Christmas Day
Harden is not a quiet scorer. He can get hot in a hurry and before you know it, he has a 15-point quarter. After building an 18-point lead early, the Rockets saw the Spurs claw back in it a little over a couple minutes into the fourth quarter. That’s when The Beard got busy.
He scored on the next four Houston possessions. His 3 with about five minutes left capped off 11 straight points and gave the Rockets a double-digit lead that would carry them to the end.
This was the second of four times last season the Rockets sent the future champs home in disappointment.
The Line: 37 points on 10-for-19 shooting, 12-for-12 at the line
The Quote: “It wasn’t the prettiest win, but at the end of the night a win is all that matters.” – Harden
VIDEO: Harden’s huge game holds off ‘Melo and the Knicks
Harden didn’t think the win had aesthetic value, but his game was artistic. From the onset, he controlled matters for Houston, connecting on a bevy of step backs, pull-up shots and hard dribble drives. Frustrated Knicks defenders were unable to defend him without fouling or getting buried with a bucket.
With two and a half minutes left in the game, he sized up Carmelo Anthony and dropped him off on a pretty step-back jumper for his last deuce.
The Line: 41 points, 10 rebounds, 7 3s, 6 steals, 6 assists
The Quote: “He is a freak. He is ridiculous. He is unbelievable.” – Chandler Parsons on Harden
VIDEO: Harden powers Houston’s comeback against Portland
Down 13 points to the Blazers at home in the fourth, Jimmy Beard went into overdrive. He cranked out four 3-pointers in the final frame, including one from the left corner to send the game into overtime. Time after time, he bailed the Rockets out with his isolation magic and led Houston to one of the season’s best comeback victories.
The Line: 39 points, 17-for-20 from the line, 9 rebounds, 7 assists
The Quote: “We were in ‘whatever it takes to win’ mode. We got it done.” – Harden
VIDEO: Harden schools the Thunder to clinch a playoff berth
Mr. Harden doesn’t seem to lack for motivation in games against his ex-teammates. He had the aggression going early and often. When he wasn’t getting to the stripe, he was exercising accuracy from deep (4-for-8). When he wasn’t bombing from the land of trey, he was dishing to waiting teammates.
Eight of his 13 fourth-quarter points came at the line. The Thunder were foul-happy, yielding 37 attempts. Harden tallied more than half of that amount. Amazingly, Harden was able to coax fouls at will from a team he spent his first three years with. Fittingly, the win clinched another playoff berth.
The Line: 33 points, 14 in 4th quarter, 13 assists
The Quote: “We needed this win more than anything.” – Harden
VIDEO: Harden scores 14 in the fourth to lift Houston
For the third time this season, the Rockets were behind late to the Pelicans. For the third time this season, they overcame. Harden put on a show in the period with his usual trinity: 3s, penetrations, free throws. But that almost wasn’t enough.
Down 104-96 with 2:48 remaining, The Beard dished two dimes and scored another six to help Houston end the game on a 15-0 blitz to put away the Pels. This win stopped a skid and helped them maintain their hold on the fourth playoff spot in the West.