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James Harden’s Brilliance Is a Two-Way Mirror

Our daily look at the NBA’s best players of the night examines yet another absurd Harden stat line and Anthony Davis’s angst

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along. Today, a toast to the losers.

King of the Court: James Harden

41 points (13-for-20 FG; 5-for-9 3P; 10-for-14 FT), 7 rebounds, 15 assists in a 128–120 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers

Harden’s iconic beard is, at this point, as much a part of his physique as his near-6-foot-11 wingspan. It adds a perceived weight to Harden’s head, which in turn supplies the drama to his head fakes and jerks. It means whenever he lowers his head, he looks exhausted; his doughy body physically corroborates this false narrative. He allows his body to play mind games with his opponent.

When I talked to Marcus Elliott of P3 Applied Sports Science last month, he was quick to mention the peculiar gifts of the Rockets star. “Harden is barely average in almost every metric we look at related to athleticism, except for deceleration metrics,” Elliott told me. “And in those he’s one of the best athletes we’ve ever measured in any sport — in soccer, football, or basketball.”

Yep. Harden is world-class at slowing down. It’s the reason his drive-and-kicks feel different. He can get into the lane from the top of the arc, but he can also brake quicker than his defender can sense the deceleration. It opens up a bubble, an extra beat that creates space where there wouldn’t have been any had the play been run with anyone else. On the court, Harden’s presence is a two-way mirror: He can see what his opponents see in him, but he keeps his own intentions hidden. That ability to create alternate realities is what makes him great; it’s the skill Mike D’Antoni knew would make him a great point guard.

Now if only the Rockets could get some stops.

Runner-up: Anthony Davis

35 points (9-for-21 FG; 0-for-3 3P; 17-for-18 FT), 15 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 blocks in a 117–113 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks

With 8:09 remaining in the first quarter between the Bucks and Pelicans, Anthony Davis blocked a Matthew Dellavedova layup, and traveled the length of the floor himself for a score and the foul three seconds later. It wasn’t a he made it look so easy type of play. There was no flair, no joy. It was a yeoman’s two-way, coast-to-coast finish. It was tortured genius.

Then, because time is just a continuum of misery conspiring against the Brow, with 8:09 remaining in the third quarter, Davis dove down into the paint for a violent dunk attempt, nearly Chappelle-shoving Giannis Antetokounmpo’s head right off his shoulders in the process.

I’d be looking too far into the moment if I said there was a message encoded within this Summit of Freaks, but it sure felt like something. Year after year, Davis’s momentum has been curtailed by his own injuries or by his team collapsing around him. Davis has now racked up 50 points, 45 points, and 35 points in three of his first four games. He spent most of Tuesday night at the line, where he converted 17 of his 18 free throw attempts. The rest of the time, he watched teammates like Dante Cunningham and E’Twaun Moore blow easy layups. Davis is averaging 37 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks per game. The Pelicans have not won a game yet. “It’s frustrating,” Davis said after the game. “We can’t get a win. It’s frustrating … Whatever we need to do, we need to do it fast.”

Honorable Mention: Karl-Anthony Towns, Whose Dangerous Entry Pass to Gorgui Dieng at the Top of the Key Turned Into Three Points

Towns was officially credited with an assist on this play, because life is strange and dispiriting, but sometimes it is also perfect.