Each of James Harden’s 31 straight 30-plus-point games has been a marker of his incredible season. But while those performances are all worthy of admiration, the games in which he met the 30-point mark and his team still lost have told a more interesting story. Harden went off for 58 in an overtime game against Brooklyn in mid-January, and had 42 against the Thunder, Bucks, and Wolves—all resulting in L’s. Overall, this Herculean stretch has brought Houston success: the Rockets are 26-15 in games in which Harden has scored 30 points or more, and 21-10 over the past 31 games. And until now, this strategy has been Houston’s only method of survival.
But where basketball fans see a ridiculous feat—Harden’s averaging 36.6 points a game, which would be the highest season-long average since Michael Jordan in 1986-87—Harden himself sees the streak as more of a business transaction.
“The scoring streak is obviously amazing, but it’s something that I just had to do because of our situation,” Harden told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on Monday. “We had all the injuries and guys in and out of the lineup and things like that. So I think the streak just started happening, and now it’s like something to talk about. … That’s something I have to do in order to give us a chance to win the game.”
Harden’s comments are not dissimilar to ones Anthony Davis made in November when he said, “I got to play almost perfect” for the Pelicans to win. But the context surrounding the quotes couldn’t be more different. Davis’s remark foreshadowed his coming trade demand. Harden’s statement feels like a bit of motivation tinged with MVP campaigning. For any detractors who may consider his game an aesthetic bore, he reasons that he’s had no choice. He’s trying to win, above all, and what may look to some as a self-serving style has been a necessity for his team. In one answer, he’s both pointing out the burden and giving himself an out.
And he’s not wrong. Harden’s scoring streak alone is not a foolproof way to win, and certainly won’t be come playoff time. But for the past two months, his numbers have been the only thing holding Houston together. The team has had to give him carte blanche on the court because of Chris Paul’s left hamstring injury (he missed 18 games) and Clint Capela’s right thumb injury (which kept him out 15 games). But Harden’s totalitarian ownership of the ball should be on the decline post-All-Star break. Paul has been back for eight games now, and during that stretch he’s averaged double-digit points and and eight assists. So far, Paul’s return hasn’t diminished Harden’s numbers: He averaged 38.1 points in the eight games before the break. Houston went only 4-4 in those contests, and it seems that Paul, now 33 and ailed by injuries, likely won’t be able to deliver the same kind of impact that helped Houston take Golden State to seven games in the conference finals last season. But if the Rockets can get the rest of the team healthy, they stand a chance of making it that far again.
Which brings us to Capela. The Rockets run a perimeter-based offense that works from the outside in with Harden at the helm. Missing Capela has depleted their defense (they’re 25th in the league in defensive rating) and made their live-by-Harden, die-by-Harden system more necessary. Luckily for Houston, Capela is expected to return to the lineup after the break. If Harden is the player who carries the team, then Capela is the one who raises its ceiling. His breakout over the past season and a half has been a welcome development, and his rim protection, rebounding, and inside scoring have complemented Harden’s maneuvering perfectly. Capela averages more than 12 rebounds a game, with five of those coming on the offensive side of the ball—a career-high rate that is second only to Andre Drummond this season.
Of course, what the Rockets need in order to replicate last season’s run to the conference finals is a combination of those three guys all playing at their best. They need Capela to become a defensive menace, Paul to find his legs, and Harden to still score over 30—and more efficiently. Harden is averaging 7.7 assists per game, an indication that he won’t need to shoot less during the second part of the season to incorporate his returning teammates. Now when he does pass, he’ll have Capela and Paul finishing those plays and not the fringe roster guys the Rockets played in their absence.
Houston currently holds the fifth seed in the Western Conference, one game behind the Blazers and one game in front of the Jazz. It’s a tightly packed playoff race, and outside of the Warriors, it doesn’t look like anyone will be coasting into the postseason. Depending on how the stretch run breaks, Houston could end up with the 3-seed at the end of the regular season, or be out of the playoffs entirely. It all hinges on not just Harden’s heroics, but also what the rest of the cast around him can contribute—finding the balance between helping Harden and letting him cook will be crucial.
During practices ahead of the All-Star Game, Steph Curry was recorded telling Team Giannis coach Mike Budenholzer that Harden told him, “It’s fun, but I want to play different … I’m by myself ... hero ball”—which sounded like a reference to what Harden has had to do this year. This season will certainly be remembered for Harden’s feats—like scoring 11 points in 100 seconds against the Wolves to tie Wilt Chamberlain for the second-longest 30-point streak of all time. Keeping up the streak may become more difficult as the season goes along, but despite what Curry said, Harden doesn’t seem like he wants to let go of it. Now the dance becomes about fitting all of the pieces around him. The upside? Those games he lost despite scoring 40 or 50 earlier in the season may now become wins.