Three Things to Know: Harden’s streak continues for 27th game, but are Rockets contenders?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) James Harden’s streak continues for a 27th game, but can Houston win a title this way? The Phoenix Suns haven’t stopped much of anybody this season (second worst defensive rating in the NBA), so it shouldn’t be a surprise they couldn’t slow the best scorer in the game on Monday night.

James Harden scored 44 and the Rockets knocked off the Suns 118-110. For those of you scoring at home, that extends Harden’s 30+ points streak to 27 games, fast closing in on the second-longest streak ever, held by Wilt Chamberlain at 31. (The all-time record is 65, also held by Chamberlain, and that’s probably unbreakable). Also, this was Harden’s 20th 40-point game this season. Last guy to do that? Kobe Bryant in the 2005-06 season (when the Lakers started Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, so you couldn’t blame Kobe for jacking up shots).

With the win, the Rockets are 31-22, the fifth seed in the West and solidly a playoff team (three games up on the nine-seed Kings). But are they contenders? In an ESPN interview, Kobe himself said no, not if Harden has to dominate the ball like this.

Kobe’s right, these Rockets are not contenders, although I would argue the reason is less Harden’s offense and more defense — fourth worst in the NBA this season, and in the last 10 games it’s gotten worse (by 3.4 points per 100). What propelled the Rockets to contender status a season ago was a top-10 defense to go with Harden and the offense, but this season their defense is 6.6 points per 100 worse, and if a team can’t get stops it will not last long in the postseason.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo has another MVP-level night. Harden’s scoring streak — and the fact he has nearly single-handedly propelled the Rockets to be a playoff team — has The Beard as the frontrunner for MVP. However, if anyone’s going to push him it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — and the Greek Freak showed why on Monday night.

The feisty Brooklyn Nets have given a lot of teams trouble but the Greek Freak came within an assist of a triple-double — 30 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists — and the Bucks cruised to a 113-94 rout.

The argument for Antetokounmpo over Harden for MVP is based on two things. First, the Bucks are the better team — best record in the NBA at 39-13, with the best net rating in the league by far at +9.8 — and the Greek Freak is their best player. Second, Antetokounmpo plays defense at a high level, let’s just say Harden doesn’t and leave it at that.

But if you want to counter that Antetokounmpo does not have a well-rounded game because of his jump shot, well….

3) Kings’ Marvin Bagley III with 360 alley-oop finish. You should be watching the Sacramento Kings more — they are one of my League Pass favorites. They play fast, they’re athletic and young, and win or lose they are entertaining. And improving.

Case in point, the prized No. 2 pick from the last draft Marvin Bagley III. He showed his steps forward with a career-high 24 points and 12 rebounds to lead Sacramento to an upset of San Antonio Monday night.

And he had one of the highlight dunks of the year.

These Kings will not fade away. With this win, they are 28-25 on the season and are just half a game out of the playoffs. They wouldn’t beat the Warriors in a first-round playoff series, but it would be fun to watch.