The most telling image from Wednesday night’s historic game between the Houston Rockets and the Brooklyn Nets came after the final buzzer. As Spencer Dinwiddie was mobbed by his teammates following the Nets’ unbelievable 145-142 overtime win, the camera cut to a nearly breathless James Harden walking off the court. Harden untucked his jersey in disgust and took the kind of deep sigh someone who had just played 45 minutes, scored 58 points, and lost would take. He then brushed aside the camera in front of him. The Rockets broke the record for most 3-pointers attempted (previously 61, set by … the Rockets) before the end of regulation and finished with 70 attempts from deep. It was somehow not enough.
Harden’s season high in points may have been in vain, but it was also another monumental step on his way to what could be one of the most impressive seasons ever. His 58 points push him up to 35.4 points per game for the season. Only four qualifying players—Wilt Chamberlain (five times), Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Rick Barry—have averaged 35 or more. The game is Harden’s 18th straight with at least 30 points and his 15th this season of 40 points or more.
But on Wednesday in Houston, Dinwiddie and the Nets would not wilt under the barrage of Harden’s scoring. Down eight in the final minute-plus of regulation, Brooklyn came back to tie it thanks to three Dinwiddie 3s in the final 26 seconds. Down nearly as much with a minute and a half of overtime, it came back and won it by forcing the ball out of Harden’s hands and making three key field goals. In the final three minutes of regulation plus the overtime period, Dinwiddie dropped 21 points. His average coming into the night was 16.7 points. In the shadow of Harden’s explosion, the Nets guard engineered his own memorable moment.
Houston prides itself on trusting the math, and without Clint Capela (thumb) as an inside scoring option or Chris Paul (hamstring) as a safety valve from the midrange, it had no choice but to pivot even harder toward its 3-heavy style. The Rockets barely even bothered playing big men, going as far as to start four wings around Harden, and taking as many 3s as possible. And James Nunnally, whom they signed to a 10-day contract on Wednesday, not only played 25 minutes, he took seven 3s—almost double his career high. This season alone, Houston has put up 6 of the 12 games in NBA history with the highest percentage of 3s taken by a team. The Rockets are, more so than perhaps any other team in the history of the league, living and dying by the 3.
The Nets, however, had the more important numbers on their side. Harden was a solo act trying to play every instrument (and he nearly did!). In addition to Dinwiddie, the Nets’ Jarrett Allen (20 points and 24 rebounds) and DeMarre Carroll (22 points) also stepped up as reliable scoring options down the stretch. Three may be more than two, but three is also more than one. The Nets, now 15-5 over their past 20 games, simply outlasted the Rockets’ one-man show. And instead of getting yet another triumphant moment for Harden, we got the most glaring example of how much he has to do to give this depleted roster a chance. As exciting as it was for Harden to push the limits yet again, the night still ended in a loss for a team clinging to a playoff spot in a Western Conference that’s still 14-deep. That said, having no other options means no one’s stopping Harden from putting up 34 shots from the floor (and another 23 at the free throw line), which is putting him in position to join scoring history.
A college football regular season is only 12 games; because of that, signature moments are just as important as big numbers in the race for the Heisman Trophy. The game-winning drive, the highlight reel touchdown, the improbable comeback—they all stick out on a Saturday where dozens and dozens of games are played at the same time. Harden’s 58 may not have produced a win, but what it did do was create another unforgettable moment. The game-winner against Golden State, the 57-point performance he had just a game ago to beat the Grizzlies, the filthy stepback 3 against Jamal Murray, and now this game—Harden’s Heisman moments are piling up. The MVP narrative is already turning in his favor.
It’s interesting that when Harden began this run of performances, the conversation around his game was still focused on his prodding, foul-seeking, free-throw-heavy scoring style. Slowly, that has shifted through Harden’s sheer force. It’s hard to quibble with his methods when the results are this good. Taste is subjective, but history isn’t.