For those who still think that James Harden is not a superstar, you need to watch the Feb. 20 game between the Rockets and Thunder very closely because we just witnessed one of the best individual performances in the NBA this season.
It was a game that makes second-guess the Thunder’s decision to trade the man known as The Beard from Oklahoma City to Houston. It was a game that will convince you that Harden, now out of the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, is one of the best players in the world.
With his Rockets down by 14 with under five minutes left, Harden decided to take the game over. He single-handedly rallied the Rockets, dropping a career-high 46 points in a 122-119 victory that had the Toyota Center buzzing — and the rest of the league for that matter — buzzing. Harden made 14 of 19 shots from the field and made seven of his eight 3-point attempts.
It didn’t matter who OKC put on Harden, he just kept scoring. Not even the Thunder’s two best defenders, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, could slow him down.
The signature play of the evening came at the two-minute mark of the final quarter when Harden faced Ibaka on the wing, gave him one crossover dribble, four between-the-legs dribbles, then stepped backed for a long 3-pointer over the best shot-blocker in the NBA to tie the score at 111. It was one of the better one-one-one plays you will ever see on a basketball court.
The Thunder said moving Harden was a financial move, pointing to the luxury tax and the fact that the team already has two max contracts (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) in their books and couldn’t afford a third. But if it was strictly financial then why not dump Kendrick Perkins and his overpriced $9 million contract and not re-sign Ibaka to make room for Harden? Nick Collison could easily fill Perk’s shoes, and as good as Ibaka is on defense the Thunder still struggle to hold teams down so keeping Serge didn’t exactly fix OKC’s deficiencies on the defensive end.
And there’s only a handful of legit fourth-quarter closers in the game today and Harden is one of them. He is just a shade below Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade when the game is on the line.
Bottom line here is the Harden trade will haunt OKC for a long time because the Thunder went from near locks to repeat as Western Conference champs and may be challenge the Miami Heat for a title to falling back to the pack with the Spurs, Clippers, and Grizzlies. OKC general manger Sam Presti and owner Clay Bennett had in their mitts a three-headed beast in Harden, Durant, and Westbrook who genuinely like each other on and off the court unlike the stars in L.A.
All three guys can each win a game or a series for you, much like Harden did vs. the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference finals. San Antonio can point to Harden as the reason why the Thunder rallied from an 0-2 series hole.
Yet, the Thunder chopped off that three-headed beast with their own sword.