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Saved by the Beard: How James Harden Revived the Rockets and Kept Them Afloat in the West

Harden’s video-game-like numbers led Houston to a 9-1 record in the team’s past 10 games and prevented the squad from falling victim to its regression

The back of James Harden, with his arms stretched out Getty Images/Ringer illustration

James Harden is in the peak of his prime—of that there is no doubt. The reigning MVP may have validated his superstar status last season by winning the NBA’s ultimate award, but over his past 10 games, he’s been writing his master’s thesis.

This season, the once-third-wheel on a young Thunder team is channeling his former teammates’ strongest traits—Kevin Durant’s outrageous scoring prowess and Russell Westbrook’s aggressive, one-man mentality—and in the process he’s crafted a unique style of play that is extremely effective, if also aesthetically grating. But despite the flack that Harden has gotten for his over-the-top foul-hunting and flopping, his style has led to 10 different 40-point nights this season—including one in Houston’s 113-101 victory over Memphis on Monday—and plenty of wins. And the Rockets have needed every bit of this showcase to stay afloat in the deadly West.

Harden’s recent numbers are video-game-like, seemingly taken from a former NBA reality when hero-ball patron saints like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant thrived. In Houston’s past 10 games, Harden averaged 40.8 points a game on 25 shots. He’s taking more than 13 3s a game, making them at a 41 percent clip, and complementing that with 8.9 assists a game, 6.8 rebounds, and, get this: 2.2 steals. You don’t have to enjoy watching him draw endless fouls, flail at any bit of contact, or suck the life out of the clock before nailing a step-back 3 just before time expires—but there is no denying his efficiency. Against Memphis, Harden scored 43 points on only eight made shots, proving that his method is a foolproof way to take advantage of the league’s tighter whistles and defensive changes. It’s offensive creativity that feels like cutting corners.

Houston was near rock bottom when this run began. The Rockets had an 11-14 record and stood above only the tragi-comic Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference standings. With Chris Paul out with a hamstring injury (one he’s still recovering from), it looked like it was time to write the obituary on the Rockets’ short-lived championship window. But since Harden’s takeover, Houston has gone 9-1 and is fourth in the West, only 3.5 games out of first place.

It’s unreasonable to expect this level of play to continue for any extended period of time. The NBA season is long, and there’s only so much weight that one player can be expected to shoulder—especially as the rest of Houston’s roster, aside from Clint Capela, has floundered. Paul’s age appears to be catching up with him, and Eric Gordon’s shooting has fallen off by about 4 percent from the field and 5 percent from 3. The Rockets as a whole are shooting nearly 3 percent worse from 3 than they did last season, and, without key role players like Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza, that regression has thrown off Mike D’Antoni’s well-oiled system. Houston tried to right the ship by trading for Jimmy Butler; when that fell through, the team added Austin Rivers and G Leaguer Danuel House, both of whom have been helpful. But the NBA is still a superstar league, and nothing can gloss over the cracks in a system like a player who can go for 40 points a night.

Over this stretch of games, the Rockets have gone from the sixth-best offense in the league to the second-best, and they’ve also evolved from a bottom-five defense to ninth. This defensive improvement, combined with Harden’s supernova performances, has drastically improved a team that badly needed a boost. The Rockets probably still aren’t a true contender to dethrone the Warriors, but they also aren’t dead in the water, as we may have thought a month ago. They just needed Harden to start cooking.