James Harden is clearly one of the league’s best players. He might in fact be an early favorite for MVP; Harden currently trails only Giannis, LeBron, Kawhi, and Durant per one sportsbook.
Harden was pegged by some to take a step back, numbers-wise, thanks to Houston’s addition of Chris Paul. But Paul only played in one game before going down with a knee injury. That’s opened things up for Harden to resume the role he took on last year: focal point/creator/distributor/lead scorer of a Mike D’Antoni offense. And he’s done it quite well, scoring 26.8 points per game, while dishing out 9.4 assists and grabbing 4.6 rebounds per contest, as well. (Harden is adding in 1.5 steals per game.
Along with the superb play of reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon (23 points per game despite shooting below his typical percentages), Harden has the Rockets at 8-3.
Sunday night, Harden took it to another level, playing a game that rivaled LeBron’s insane 57-point performance from Friday.
From ESPN’s Tim MacMahon:
James Harden set a career high with 56 points in a spectacular shooting display in the Houston Rockets’ 137-110 win Sunday over the Utah Jazz.
Harden was 19-of-25 shooting, including 7-of-8 from 3-point range. He is the first player to score at least 55 points on 25 or fewer field goals since Michael Jordan in 1987 (58 points on 25 shots).
Harden also recorded 13 assists, accounting for a total of 91 points.
Harden ended up with 56 points despite playing just 35 minutes; he sat the final seven minutes of the contest despite being just one point shy of the franchise scoring record. Still, he started the fourth quarter with 50 points despite the Rockets being up big, so it’s not like the Rockets didn’t let him go for it.
Harden opened up as hot as a player can play, finishing the first quarter with 22 points on 8-8 shooting from the floor. The Rockets won handily, thanks to Harden’s heroic efforts combined with lights-out shooting from the outside. Houston finished 26-39 from beyond the arc, which is just absurdly good, and it’s difficult to outscore a Mike D’Antoni team firing on all cylinders.
Harden has clearly established himself as a star player in the league, and it will be fascinating to see how he and Chris Paul mesh when Paul returns. It’s possible D’Antoni aggressively staggers the duo, playing very few minutes without either one on the floor surrounded by athetic wings and at least one or two excellent shooters. That’s a recipe for success, at least on one end of the floor, and assuming good health (no guarantee; Paul is getting up there and obviously has creaky knees, and Gordon is in uncharted territory for avoiding major injuries) Houston looks like a lock for a top-3 seed in the West.
James Harden might not have a better game this year than he had last night, and it’s only the first week of November.