There are perfectly good reasons to root against both the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. The Warriors have Kevin Durant and Draymond Green and are a juggernaut; the Rockets have James Harden and Chris Paul and play maybe the least interesting brand of basketball of any worth-a-shit NBA team. The thing to do when they get together, if you’re a neutral fan, is to hope for a meteor but otherwise just root for cool basketball things to happen.
I submit, though, that it was all but impossible to root against James Harden Thursday night, with the Rockets in Oracle and without both Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, basically the only other players on the entire roster who can reliably create their own offense. The Warriors went up 20, and all the delicious Rockets schadenfreude was slurped down too early, and so as Houston chipped away at the lead and clawed their way back into it, suddenly the more interesting outcome had the Warriors eating whole mountains of shit, on their home floor, again, and this time against a one-man show.
It wasn’t exactly a one-man show—Clint Capela was excellent, and the Rockets got brave performances from Danuel House and Gerald Green and [gulp] Austin Rivers—but holy shit was Harden incredible:
I would like to draw your attention to everything Harden did after about the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter, when the Rockets had it down to a one-possession game. He dropped in a buzzer-beating midrange jumper over a tough contest from Kevon Looney with 5:39 on the clock; he threw an exquisite bounce pass through traffic to a rolling Capela with 3:50 on the clock to make it a one-point game; with the Rockets down six and a minute left on the clock, he rifled a pass ahead in transition for an and-one assist to Capela; and he nailed a trademark step-back three to tie the game with 43 seconds left, when Kevin Durant knew down to his bones that was exactly what was coming.
Before we get to overtime, I would like to point out that Rivers and House played 40 minutes Thursday night. Green played 30 minutes off the bench. PJ Tucker played 36 minutes. That’s a lot of minutes for some unremarkable-ass NBA role players. For a stretch of the late fourth quarter and again in overtime, the Rockets made the heartbreaking decision to let Rivers isolate against Steph Curry, I guess because Steph is the most vulnerable defender in Golden State’s closing lineup, and the Warriors were doing a brilliant job of trapping Harden on screens up high in order to prevent him from getting Steph in a one-on-one. The Rivers isolations were an excruciatingly bad idea, but they illustrate just how starved the Rockets are, right now, for playmaking, that the next-best option they have for some zippy shot-creation involved throwing it to a guy who routinely accidentally ties his shoes together, so that he could work one-on-one against one of the three or four best basketball players on our planet.
Given that, it’s amazing that Harden had anything left for overtime. He took 23 goddamn three-pointers Thursday night, and I’ll be damned if I can remember a single one of them that didn’t have a high degree of difficulty. But it was Harden who banged home a tie-breaking three over all-everything perimeter defender Andre Iguodala, and then nailed an insane clutch three from deep in the corner over the endless arms of Durant, to bring the Rockets within a point. It was Harden who escaped the trap to find Rivers for a wide, wide open three to put the Rockets back ahead, and it was Harden who beat Klay Thompson and drove into Draymond Green—only two of the best defensive players in basketball—to earn his way to the stripe for the game-tying freebies with 33.5 seconds on the clock. By now Harden’s night had gone from impressive to astonishing.
But that was all setting the stage for his final act, which came after just an unbelievably bad blown call by the referees gifted the Warriors the go-ahead bucket with 22 seconds on the clock. The Rockets stumbled through a rough 15 or so seconds of possession and wound up inbounding from the side with 5.5 seconds left. That is when this happened:
That is just an impossible fucking shot to make. Look at this shit right here:
He may be infuriating, but right now Harden is also an utterly unstoppable monster, and there is just no way he isn’t the most valuable player in the NBA this season. This shit is the good kind of unfair.