James Harden won't be a starter when the NBA All-Star game comes next month, but he has the strongest case for MVP through three months this season.
His national TV game on Thursday was one of many he could show to the panel of public opinion in corroboration of his campaign: he fell just short of a triple double, scoring 31 points on 9-15 shooting with 10 assists and nine rebounds in a 112-101 blowout victory against Oklahoma City.
He's the lynchpin of everything Houston does, leading their offense with shot making and creating. He scored 14 in the Rockets' 40 point first quarter, taking and hitting shots with absurd degrees of difficulty. Yet even then, what's amazing is how effortlessly he accomplishes it.
Some NBA players can split a defense like that and others can finish it with the same raw power. Few can do both together on the same play and keep doing it consistently throughout a season -- all while making it look easy!
Harden still has defensive lapses from time to time and he's always going to seek out contact to draw cheap fouls, but he's not doing either as explicitly or constantly as he has in the past couple of years. As a result, he's so much more fun to watch this year, splitting defenses for dunks and making impossible stepback three-pointers look commonplace.
He's first in scoring and fifth in PER, scoring 27 points a game with shooting percentages (44 percent overall, 37 percent from 3) exactly in line with his career averages. He grabs 5.6 rebounds and dishes 6.7 assists a game, essentially running the point while Patrick Beverley takes an off-ball role. And as often the case with the most convincing MVP arguments, his team is terrible without him -- their offense plummets from 108 points per 100 possessions with Harden playing to 91 with him off.
A lot -- a lot -- is being asked of Harden by Houston this year, and if he falters slightly as the season progresses there's no shame in that. Right now, though, he has done everything the Rockets need from him -- and then some.
3 other things we learned
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant played a game deserving of a time capsule somewhere. The two ultimate competitors won't have many more games like this, guarding each other and trading shots down the stretch of the fourth quarter. Bryant set a career-high with 17 assists while James finished with a seemingly easy line of 36 points, five rebounds, five assists and just a single turnover.
The first half was littered with strange moments, including what seemed to be an uninterested James missing an alley oop dunk and Bryant laughing at him for it to boot. But what we should all take away from this game is the great play of two transcendent stars making a game between two struggling teams compelling.
Maybe the Thunder won't make the playoffs. With another loss, Oklahoma City is 18-20, three and a half games behind Phoenix for the No. 8 seed in the West and not resembling the two-man death machine that we're so accustom to. Kevin Durant played 40 minutes and Russell Westbrook 38, and the Thunder were barely even competitive, trailing by double digits the entire second half. We're all assuming they figure it out at some point, but their uphill climb required to make the playoffs isn't waiting for them.
The Knicks are bad on every continent! New York didn't score a basket for nearly six minutes and went down 14-0, and the Bucks never looked back in a game played in London. Carmelo Anthony played his first game of 2015 after sitting six straight with continued knee issues, making you wonder if the real reason he's not shutting it down for the year yet is so he could participate in high-profile events like trans-Atlantic matchup and the All-Star Game, where he's currently a starter. With or without Anthony, though, the Knicks are just a mess.
Play of the Night
That's Dion Waiters, not Serge Ibaka, completely erasing a Patrick Beverley layup attempt.
2 fun things
I'd love for some to do the math on the angle this crazy banked 3-pointer from Trevor Ariza takes.
Timofey Mozgov gets up for the alley oop finish.