James Harden has been special for a while now. Hell, in the past four years, he’s won an MVP and come close to two others. Harden is definitely a top-five basketball player in the world, which is enormous praise considered the other four in the club are LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Anthony Davis.
What he’s doing right now, over these last five weeks, is out of another universe. It’s real-time legend-making.
Since Dec. 13, Harden has scored at least 30 points in all 19 games the Rockets have played. In that span he’s averaging 42 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, and two steals per game while shooting 38 percent on — choking sound — 15.5 threes attempted per game. His True Shooting percentage over this span is 63.2 percent. That means that when you factor in threes and free throws, he’s shooting the equivalent of 63.2 percent from the floor. League average for all players this season is 55.8 percent.
By the way, the Rockets are 14-5 over that stretch, despite being ravaged by injury.
Harden reached what should have been pinnacle last season, earning a well-deserved MVP award and coming a single cold streak away from knocking off the most talented team ever assembled. That would be enough for most budding Hall of Famers. You could build a Springfield induction speech of Harden’s 2017-18 campaign.
He’s clearly not satisfied, though. Despite the Rockets’ dreams of a title looking bleak for the first two months of the season, Harden did what he could to keep the window pried open. Now he’s just clubbing it with a crowbar to get that championship breeze flowing through the Toyota Center again.
Whether that will happen depends on a lot outside Harden’s control: Chris Paul’s health, Daryl Morey’s ability to add another piece before the season’s out, Mike D’Antoni’s ability to cobble together some defense, the Warriors’ internal politics, and more. But this conversation wouldn’t be a whisper if not for what Harden has done.
This is the new James Harden legend, no matter what happens in April, May, and (heavens hold your breath) June, and no matter if this entrancing, hirsute spell lasts no longer than tomorrow. The lore of Harden, the mythology of The Beard, starts right here with these back-to-back 50-spots, and a dozen and a half threes on a Tuesday, and all this overwhelming, all-consuming excellence.
This is peak Iverson, but somehow more. This is peak Kobe, but somehow better. This is peak McGrady, but somehow easier.
Yes, this is of that type of megalomaniac scoring: hungry, persistent, magical, unstoppable. It’s different that what Durant or Curry or LeBron or even canonical Michael Jordan or Larry Bird gave us. (Early Jordan is more of this manner, but those images have been eclipsed in the popular imagination by the winter Sundays and Junes of the ‘90s on NBC.)
Curry, Durant, and usually LeBron are blue flames — a fire that spreads quickly and subtly until there’s nothing but ash and a 25-point quarter hanging off your forehead. Those guys are a slow-building crescendo, strings and woodwinds easing you to devastation of the highest order.
The Iversons, Kobes, and Hardens are all drums and high brass. There’s no being surprised at the 40 in the scoring column on the boxscore after three quarters. You felt every bucket hit you in the jaw. Yet this is typology, not qualitative assessment.
Qualitatively, Harden is much more like Curry and Durant than Iverson and Kobe. A.I. was messy and inefficient on and off the basketball court. Kobe was (is) a primadonna, a self-aware and self-important diva, a clever tennis prodigy trapped in a team sport. (He was also inefficient.) Curry and Durant call back to titles-era Jordan in terms of incredible efficiency amid high usage, and Harden’s right there with them. Well, he would be right there with them, if Curry weren’t resetting the standards by which we measure these things.
Curry has the shooting advantage over Harden, and Durant has the classic look and style. But The Beard makes up for that with sheer volume (in quantitative, sonic, and sartorial senses).
Consider this fact about these three heroic scorers. Curry and Durant each have six career 50-point games. Harden, the youngest of the bunch, has 13, including four this season. (Iverson had 11 in slower times for a relatively short career; Kobe had [choking sound] 25.)
This could end tomorrow and it will have been, to date, the central legend of Harden’s career, above the MVP, the near-MVPs, and the near-title.
The thing is that there is no telling it will last through tomorrow, or next week, or forever. That’s what inspires so much frenzy about runs like this — like what Kobe pulled off a decade and change ago before the Lakers’ second act, like what Iverson did through the early Aughts, like what McGrady presented every now and then for years. They are relentless and all-consuming. You know they must burn out at some point, but maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, and maybe not next week.
These fires burn hot and fast, but Harden’s is the most violent of all. We’re in the middle of it, and we can’t forget what the heat feels like once everything cools down. This is Harden at his peak, and it is glorious.