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James Harden’s 54-Point Explosion Doesn’t Mean As Much As It Used To

The Beard was in reigning-MVP form Monday, but even his individual brilliance couldn’t make up for the team’s nagging weaknesses like it did last season

James Harden smiling Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Not all 50-point games are created equal. In today’s offense-happy, fast-paced NBA they’re happening in bunches—we’ve had six such games already this season. (Remember 2016-17’s offensive explosion that produced 14 50-point performances from an NBA-record 10 different players? This season is on pace to shatter that record by Christmas.) But now that all the newfangled changes in play this season have proved to be more than just a gimmick, they have also rendered 50-point performances less devastating than they used to be. Just ask Kemba Walker, who dropped 60 points in a loss to the Sixers earlier this month. And, if you want to sprinkle salt on a fresh wound, just ask James Harden, who poured in 54 points Monday night in a losing effort, a 135-131 overtime loss to the Wizards, the Rockets’ third straight defeat. Call it the Futile 50.

The way in which Harden amasses points is unlike most players. Scorers of his caliber usually inject the viewer with joy-filled adrenaline—think Steph Curry or Giannis Antetokounmpo. When those players get hot, their unique style of play becomes the only thing worth keeping your eyes on. They make you distinctly aware of how good they are. With Harden, it’s more of a slow burn. There’s a delayed impact. The step-back jumpers all blur into one. But before you know it, Harden’s engulfed in flames and has put up 44 points through three quarters like he did Monday. On a night when Chris Paul sat out due to a leg injury, Harden, complete with a new-look red headband, did most of the necessary heavy lifting, and did the Rockets ever need it. He took 32 shots and made 17 of them. He took 15 3s and made seven of them. He played 42 minutes in regulation and 47 overall. Prior to Monday night, the Rockets were 7-2 in the nine games Harden scored 50 or more. Harden’s explosive output had always been a key to success. Now, it can’t even secure a victory against one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NBA.

The narrow loss is an indictment on the Rockets that goes beyond just squandering a Herculean effort from Headband Harden. The pace of the game was to their liking—97.4 possessions per 48 minutes, almost exactly the rate that the Rockets average on the season. And it wasn’t like Harden went at the Wizards single-handedly; de-facto creator Eric Gordon added 36 points (and eight made 3s) in CP3’s absence, and the team shot 37.5 percent from 3 on a whopping 48 attempts. It was the ideal scenario for a classic Rockets win, but their biggest issues of the season all surfaced to spoil the show. They coughed up the ball 19 times (Houston ranks tied for 23rd in turnover rate this season), with Harden having 11 turnovers himself. Their defense allowed a middling offense to score 135 points at a rate of 126.2 points per 100 possessions, capping a five-game stretch in which the Rockets allowed their opponents to score an average of 120.8 points per game over the past nine days. And almost no one outside of Harden and Gordon did much offensively to help the cause.

Mike D’Antoni has shied away from using any more than eight players on a given night this season. The reasoning is clear: He doesn’t trust most of the players on his bench. Houston has never been particularly deep in the D’Antoni era, but they were a relentless team last season because of reliable role players like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. This season, D’Antoni’s looking at Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Carter-Williams, Marquese Chriss, and rookie Gary Clark. It’s the equivalent of taking away a chef’s farm-fresh pantry and replacing it with one of the mystery baskets on Chopped. D’Antoni can technically make a meal out of it, but that doesn’t mean it will taste good.

Prior to the game Monday, D’Antoni expressed concern about the number of minutes Houston’s starters were logging (Harden is averaging 37.4 minutes per game—the most since the 2015-16 season), and the Rockets responded by calling up Danuel House from their G League team to take Gerald Green’s minutes. House played 28 minutes Monday night (he was a minus-6), and D’Antoni, true to his word, opted for using more of his personnel. Ten players played, and seven saw at least 19 minutes on the court. The problem? Only three of those players scored more than 10 points. The bench, as a whole, could muster only nine. In the fourth quarter, the Rockets had only two scoring possessions that didn’t involve either Harden or Gordon scoring or assisting.

The Rockets are now 9-10 on the season after consecutive losses to the Pistons, Wizards, and Cavs (the Cavs!). That sound you hear is Daryl Morey furiously working the Trade Machine. Getting Paul back will help, but that kind of reliance on their top brass is part of the problem: CP3 has been inconsistent this season and hasn’t played this much per game since before he crossed over into his 30s. We’re through almost a quarter of the season, and the pace of the game leaguewide is far faster than it was last season. This is bad news for a team like the Rockets, who not only can’t play defense well enough to keep up, but also rely on no more than three players for nearly all of their offense. Monday, Houston found out that 90 combined points from the reigning MVP and the 2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year can’t seal a victory the way it might’ve in the past. With a quarter of the season gone, where else can the Rockets turn?