If any James Harden fans are still looking for a way to convince James Harden haters that the Rockets’ shooting guard and MVP runner-up is in fact a legitimate superstar and not the NBA equivalent of a Mortal Kombat spammer, they need look no further than last night’s Game 1 against the Warriors.

The Rockets blew a 16-point lead in the first half and eventually lost 110-106, and the only reason the game wasn’t put to bed by the middle of the third quarter was James Harden. His 28-9-11 line looks great in any context, but there was a brief stretch during which Harden’s game went from “solid playoff performance” to “transcendent ass-kicking.”

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With just over 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Harden made a strong drive to the hoop and dropped in a nifty layup. With 5:30 left in the fourth quarter, Harden unleashed his cruel first step to blow by Klay Thompson on the wing, stopped on a dime at the free-throw line, and dropped a pull-up jumper right in Thompson’s eye. That shot capped off a seven-minute stretch in which Harden scored 14 points on nine shots, and he didn’t go to the free-throw line once. It was seven solid minutes of Harden going one-on-five, and it was some of the best fuck-you, superstar basketball you’ll ever see.

Look at those damn shots, man. All of them were built off the barely perceptible muscle twitches and instant calculations that make Harden one of the deadliest isolation players in the league. This is the non-loathsome version of Harden that we told you about yesterday, the one who gives up on drawing fouls for a while and instead spends half a quarter turning defenders into cats trying to pounce on a laser point.

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This doesn’t mean that the annoying parts of Harden’s game weren’t present last night, too. He tried a few of his patented, foul-hunting drives to the rim in the first half, but the refs refused to indulge him and those came up empty. Maybe he’ll get those calls in Game 2, and you’ll feel miserable watching him score 40 on a foundation of 17 free throws. If that happens, just relax and try to remember how much fun you had watching him last night.

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