Watching defenders attempt to stop James Harden elicits the same kind of joy that might come from watching two awful people break up in public. Part of you feels bad for this poor defender—they couldn’t have asked for, or deserved this. Another revels in the absurdity, leaving you so giddy you feel guilty for extracting pleasure from the occurrence. Those who watched Houston’s 132-108 decimation of Portland on Monday didn’t need to be Trail Blazer fans to feel bad for the slew of PDX heroes Harden crossed into the hardwood. Nor were Houston fans the only ones who took sick pleasure in watching the magic occur.
Harden, who is now on pace to lead the league in scoring for the third consecutive season, had 36 points on 11-for-19 shooting (a particularly efficient night for him), including 5-for-10 shooting from beyond the arc, with six boards and five dimes. His backcourt partner, Russell Westbrook, added to the fun, logging the best game of his fledgling Rockets career with 28 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists—his third Houston triple-double in 12 games. And while Westbrook shone on his bobblehead night, it was Harden’s scoring that kept Portland at arm’s length all evening.
The 2018 MVP scored 15 points in the second quarter in only eight and a half minutes of play; when he entered, Houston was up by only three—by the break it had a 14-point advantage. His 23 points on just 12 attempts led all scorers, and with a wide lead in hand, he played just more than 15 minutes the rest of the way, scoring 13 more points, all seemingly at will.
Last season, Harden fell just short of winning the NBA’s ultimate individual prize for a second time, claiming that an unfavorable media narrative was to blame for his second-place finish behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. Thus far this year, he’s made it impossible for the story to have any other main character. Whether he’s fighting through crashing defenders, or 30-plus feet from the rim, when he rises, it feels inevitable that the ball will find the twine.
Harden is scoring at levels unseen for nearly 60 years. Through 14 games, he’s averaging 39.2 points per game. Only Wilt Chamberlain ever filled it up at the same rate, dropping 50.4 points per game in 1961-62, and 44.8 points per game in 1962-63.
The Houston guard has always had a nose for buckets. He hit the ground running after escaping Westbrook’s and Kevin Durant’s shadow in Oklahoma City, scoring at least 25 points per game in his first five seasons in Houston. He broke 30 points a night during his MVP season in 2017-18—impressive, but certainly not otherworldly. Then the 2018-19 season happened.
Through December 11, the Rockets were 12-14 on the season, and Harden was repeating his performance, with 30 points per game on 44.3 percent shooting. About a week later, his running mate, Chris Paul, went down with an injury. A few weeks after that Clint Capela picked up a knock of his own. Eric Gordon missed time that winter as well, and Harden’s once-vaunted supporting cast was reduced to the likes of Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, and Austin Rivers. And so Harden took over.
Harden scored at least 30 points in each of his next 32 games after December 11, including 18 games of at least 40 points, and four of at least 50. Over the course of the run, Harden averaged an absurd 41.1 points per game, and the Rockets went 21-11 and climbed to fifth in the Western Conference. By season’s end, Harden’s scoring output settled at 36.1 points per game, good for the seventh-highest mark in NBA history. Somehow, he’s now on track to best that.
That Harden is dropping historic scoring numbers isn’t surprising given his performance last season. How he’s doing it, on the other hand, should terrify his opponents. Coming into this season, since he joined Houston, Harden had shot 44.3 percent from the field, and 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. Through Monday’s win over Portland, he’s shot just shy of that mark, completing about 42.5 percent of his shots, and 34 percent of his 3s. If Harden’s rate and distribution of attempts stays steady for the rest of the year and he regresses to the completion percentage he’s enjoyed in Houston over the past two seasons, he’ll be the first player to average more than 40 points per game since Chamberlain did nearly 60 years ago.
Earlier this month, my colleague Zach Kram noted that Harden was missing more 3-pointers than anyone else in the league was even attempting. Two weeks later, it remains true. Coming into Monday, the Houston guard was clanking 9.8 of his league-leading 14.6 3-point attempts per game. Buddy Hield is second in the NBA in attempts per game at 9.7.
Whether Harden is able to keep up this pace will determine the Rockets’ success this season. At 11-3, they sit a half-game behind the Lakers atop the Western Conference, and no other team in the league has as efficient an offense as they do. Even with injuries to key players like Gerald Green and Eric Gordon, the Rockets have been able to thrive thanks to their MVP backcourt. And if Harden continues to score like he has so far this season, it’s not hard to see him adding to his trophy case.