Maybe Dwight Howard should have injury scares more often. OK, maybe not. But for one night against the Sacramento Kings, an abbreviated absence from Howard helped spur the fourth 40-plus-point game of James Harden's career.
Harden scored a season-high 43 points in just three quarters of action, as the Rockets recorded a 129-103 blowout victory in Sacramento on Tuesday. Playing with reckless abandon, Harden slashed the Kings' porous perimeter defense, forcing himself to the line 16 times and knocking down all but one.
“You feel like every shot is going to go in," Harden told Comcast SportsNet after the game. "My teammates did a great job of putting me in a position to be successful, and the coaches drew some great plays up. So, it was a great effort for us tonight.”
Harden was turning in a mostly nondescript performance through the first eight or so minutes of the first quarter, but started doing his damage when Howard temporarily went to the locker room after fouling DeMarcus Cousins. With his co-star big man on the bench, Harden looked unrestrained to unleash one of the better one-person offensive shows of the season.
The All-Star guard scored on a driving layup with 3:45 remaining in the first, starting a stretch where he scored 18 points in less than four minutes to give the Rockets a 42-17 lead after the first. Despite Sacramento committing two, and at times, three defenders to his area, Harden was relentless. A deep three here was followed by a difficult layup there, which was followed by a gobble of free throws.
Even the opposing fans couldn't help but dap Harden up:
Howard returned midway through the second quarter, but Harden's run was far from over. He added eight points before halftime and another 13 in the third, relentlessly attacking the rim—seemingly on a quest to hit the 40-point mark.
While most of his damage was done scoring the ball himself, Harden also dished eight assists. As ESPN Stats & Info noted, that puts him in elite Rockets company:
Because he's the helpful sort (or was just very, very angry), DeMarcus Cousins gave Harden two free points at the line by receiving two technicals in the third. Cousins, who has done a better job of keeping his temper under control this season, needed to be restrained from going after an official and was escorted off the court by multiple members of the Kings staff.
It was a total mess and a team-wide regression for the Kings, who drop to 20-37—the second-worst record in the Western Conference. While Mike Malone came over from Golden State with a reputation as a defensive guru, the results haven't quite been there yet. The Kings allow 106.1 points per 100 possessions for the season, per NBA.com, good for 25th in the NBA.
They had, however, been showing marked signs of improvement this month. Sacramento was giving up just 98.5 points per 100 possessions in February before Tuesday night's thrashing, which would rank third if prorated over the entire season. Malone has gotten good effort from Rudy Gay on both ends of the floor since his trade from Toronto, and additional moves gave the Kings a glut of wing players who have been able to guard well on the perimeter.
The performance just wasn't there against Houston. And it probably didn't help that Harden seems to be catching fire. He scored 39 points in a loss to Golden State last Thursday, and though he struggled a bit against the Suns this weekend while dealing with elbow problems, Harden's shot showed no ill effects Tuesday.
The Rockets have now won 10 of their last 11 games and have to start getting serious consideration as a title contender. There are still underlying issues with the roster (mostly defense-related), but Harden and Howard are one of the best one-two punches in the league—and have established themselves as such quietly, as strange as that sounds.
Forty-three points aren't the norm, obviously. But as Houston continues to win in a variety of ways, it's a team worth looking at more closely in the last couple months.
All advanced stats are via NBA.com.
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