The Denver Nuggets did not match up well with the Houston Rockets this season. To be fair, virtually no team did, but the Nuggets otherwise had a knack for playing to their competition—both up and down. Some of their best performances came in wins over the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, and Boston Celtics. Denver can run with the big boys, but Houston ran them off the floor in all three of the teams’ meetings this season.
The last of those three games was played in Denver on February 25th, when the Rockets left the Pepsi Center with a 119-114 victory in hand. It was a frustrating game for Nuggets fans, but it was a remarkable display of isolation prowess and individual greatness as James Harden put up 41 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.
Time-and-time again Harden drew the desired switch and dribbled the ball methodically at the top of the key. Time seemed to slow down as he probed, waited and pounced whenever he saw an opportunity to create points. Harden shot 6-10 from deep in that game, but he also went 13-16 from the free throw line. Obviously, the latter is what sticks out in the minds of the Nuggets faithful.
Harden has evolved from one of the game’s most talented players, to perhaps its single most impactful force on the offensive end. But he’s also grown into a polarizing figure. Some feel as though his numbers are inflated and his deficiencies are hidden thanks to his role in Houston’s system—and the from the officiating, which we’ll get to. But the former seems woefully shortsighted. James Harden isn’t part of the system, he is the system.
Harden is the scorching red star at the center of Houston’s solar system—shooters and role players orbiting around him like small planets; his gravity suspending them in just the right place, while commanding the attention of all five defenders. He’s eviscerated opposing defenses for years through a mixture of masterful footwork, canny ball handling, timely passing and of course, opportunistic instincts.
That last one is just a very polite way of saying what you’re probably thinking right now: Harden travels unapologetically and he hunts for fouls unabashedly. He’s objectively good—but he’s an acquired taste. And that’s putting it gently.
After the Rockets defeated the Utah Jazz 100-87 on Sunday night, Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell was vocal about this dynamic and he made it clear that he’s not smelling what the Beard is cooking.
Donovan Mitchell walking into the locker room after the Jazz’ Game 4 loss to Houston: “If that’s what he needs to win the MVP, so be it.” #HOUatUTA— Jake Edmonds (@JakeKUTV) May 7, 2018
Mitchell was referring to a string of calls that appeared to go Harden’s way down the stretch. His infamous step-step-back three didn’t seem to come into play in this one, but he shot eight free throws. I’m sure if you ask Mitchell and his teammate Dante Exum that was a few too many.
Dante Exum was called for fouling Harden on this pic.twitter.com/CJJ5yAM1zG— ESPN (@espn) May 7, 2018
While fans—and apparently players—have reached their wits’ end with Harden’s play style, he appears to have reached the peak of his powers. The Rockets have opened up a 3-1 series lead on the Jazz and it’s hard to envision Utah closing that gap.
It’s easy to hate on Harden, but it appears to be even harder to stop him. The Beard is more than likely going to win his first MVP award and he’s got Houston primed to give the Warriors what will likely be their biggest challenge of the season in the Western Conference Finals.
Call it cheating, call it unsportsmanlike, call it unappealing—just make sure to note its effectiveness. Harden is forging his own chapter in the annals of basketball history and he doesn’t care if we’re enjoying the read.