The Houston Rockets were a below .500 team and 13th in the West, well back in the playoff picture, when James Harden decided he had to just take over.
For 31 games he has scored at least 30 points a night, tying the second-longest streak in NBA history, and in doing so pushed the Rockets up the standings — they are fifth in the West and with a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoffs according to fivethirtyeight.com — and pushed himself to the front of the MVP race.
It was what he felt he had to do, he told Rachel Nichols of ESPN in a sit-down interview for The Jump.
“The scoring streak is obviously amazing, but it’s something that I just had to do because of our situation. 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. But it’s not something that I’m really honestly focused on. That’s something I have to do in order to give us a chance to win the game.”
With Chris Paul and Clint Capela missing time (CP3 is back now), and with the team’s defense taking a massive step back this season, it has been incumbent on Harden to carry an extraordinary load. He leads the league in usage rate by a wide margin — when he is on the court 43.6 percent of Rocket possessions end with Harden taking a shot, getting fouled, making an assist, or turning the ball over. (Next highest in the league is Russell Westbrook at 35.9 percent, stats via Cleaning The Glass).
He has done it with a simple formula that has worked for a couple of seasons now: Use switches to set up a favorable matchup and attack, either in isolation or right off the pick. Harden has run more isolation plays this season than any other TEAM in the league according to the NBA’s Second Spectrum data.
But it doesn’t feel like Harden and the Rockets can win this way this season (especially not with the weaker defense and supporting cast). Harden told Stephen Curry during All-Star weekend he would rather play in the ball-sharing style of the Warriors. Harden recognizes that’s how to win.
While the focus is on the historic streak and how long it goes, the real questions become how much of a toll is this taking on him? (Remember, Harden has faded in the playoffs before as he wore down.) Maybe more importantly, how long does he want to keep this up? And what happens when he doesn’t?