James Harden is no longer a basketball player. He is a thought experiment turned to life, an answer to the question of what happens when one team gives itself over completely to a hyper-efficient death machine.
Due to a series of injuries, the most recent of which claimed secret weapon Clint Capela, the Rockets have had to rely on Harden to a historic degree, but it took until Monday to finally understand how far the Rockets are willing to let ths go. In guiding Houston to a 112-94 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Harden gave up any pretense that basketball is a team sport while scoring 57 points.
Aside from his usual flurry of free throws—he finished 17-of-18 from the line—Harden chucked up 33 shots, hitting 17 of them. Per Basketball Reference, Harden had a grotesque 60.6 percent usage rate on Monday, the highest in a single game this season by any player. That means that, while Harden was on the court, three-fifths of Rockets possessions ended in a shot, free throw, or turnover for the bearded one.
The stats are eye-catching, but maybe more so Harden’s ability to make carrying such a heavy load look so easy. When Capela went down last week—the 24-year-old center picked up a thumb injury that will keep him out four to six weeks—you could see Harden’s forthcoming explosions in your mind’s eye. After all, Houston was already down Chris Paul, and we’ve seen what Harden has done in his absence: in the 12 games since the Rockets point guard went down in mid-December, Harden is averaging 41.9 points per game. Just in January, he’s averaging 39.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 11 assists per game. He’s also scored 30 points in 17 straight games, the longest streak since Larry Jones’s 23 straight in 1969.
Losing his other sidekick in Capela, though, has turned a professional basketball team into a one-man supernova, who is content to step back into three-pointers until the heat death of the planet.
It wasn’t necessarily “good” basketball; in most possessions on Monday, Harden pounded the rock like it’s the ‘90s all over again, before creating his own shot at will and from anywhere on the court.
He didn’t even pretend to look for anyone else on that entire possession! The other Rockets are less teammates than cheap accessories, like Walmart-bought cuff links dangling from a gilded dress shirt.
Harden’s game isn’t for everyone; the way he bends modern NBA officiating to a spot just shy of its logical breaking point will always be infuriating to some, particularly for an older generation of fans who proudly exclaim that they watched basketball when murder on the court was legal. The “he’s ruining basketball” brigade misses the point, though; Harden’s game is beautiful precisely because it’s pushing the known limits of how much a single player can do for his basketball team.
Harden is highly efficient and incredibly selfish on the court, but by necessity. He had two assists on Monday, and somehow that was 20 percent of the assists given out while he was on the court. But who else was going to score if not Harden. Austin Rivers?
With Paul out until at least the end of January, and Capela likely out until the All-Star Break, this going to be the new normal for Houston. Harden will likely not go for 50 every game, but he will be a constant threat to. Houston’s lineup is close to becoming a pile of scrap and it doesn’t matter one bit; Harden’s single-minded obsession with being a savior has them sitting as the fourth seed in the brutal West.
Sure, we all loved Giannis’ early season romp through the East, but Harden is in the middle of one of the best individual seasons in NBA history, and it’s only going to get wilder from here on out.