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James Harden Catching Fire at Perfect Time for Surging Houston Rockets

Mar 5, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket against the Orlando Magic during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 26, 2014

James Harden has a very literal interpretation of the NBA's stretch run.

Since the All-Star break, the 24-year-old has laced up his sprinting shoesno doubt, Foot Locker-approvedand launched his Houston Rockets up the Western Conference standings.

Harden has picked up a pair of Player of the Week awards during that stretch, while the Rockets have rattled off four straight victories and won 12 out of 17 since the midseason classic.

The two-time All-Star wouldn't take all the credit for himself—or even for him and his art-inspiring beard—but the Rockets wouldn't be preparing to (probably) host their first playoff series since 1997 without him finding his magic touch.

Rockets.com's Jason Friedman broke down where Harden's game currently stands:

There is simply no good answer for how to handle him if you’re unfortunate enough to be a defender tasked with the assignment of attempting to slow him right now.

He is making the right plays for both himself and his teammates, leaving a swath of broken dreams and defenses behind in his wake.

"He's an amazing player," Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer after Harden dropped 31 points and five assists on his team. "Best one-on-one player in the game."

Big Al's assessment rings a tad hyperbolic, but the numbers say it isn't that far from the truth.

Post-All-Star-Break Scoring Race
PlayerPPGFG%3PT%APG
Kevin Durant34.950.039.55.9
Carmelo Anthony30.146.639.73.4
Kevin Love28.647.641.05.3
LeBron James27.956.942.46.1
James Harden27.650.245.76.7
NBA.com

Harden's post-All-Star efficiency is staggering.

He not only leads this star-studded group in three-point percentage, he also paces the pack in made triples per game (3.4). His 85.3 free-throw percentage is the best of this fantastic five, as is his plus-9.2 point differential (LeBron James is second with a plus-5.9).

If he isn't the league's toughest cover, he's on a very short list of nightmare assignments:

It's impossible to pin down a signature moment of his second-half surge. That's not due to a shortage of overstuffed stat sheets, but rather a plethora of elite-level production.

There was his 29-point, 11-assist, six-rebound performance in Houston's first game after the break. Or the 43 points and eight assists he hung on the Sacramento Kings in just three quarters of work on Feb. 25.

He's had five double-doubles in his last 17 outings, four with 20-plus points and 10-plus assists and the other a masterful 41-point, 10-rebound performance. He's scored at least 25 points 11 different times, poured in 30 or more in seven different games and twice topped the 40-point mark.

He's even made an entry in the history books:

"Great players do that, they get going," Rockets coach Kevin McHale told the Associated Press after Harden's historic dismantling of the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I've seen James do it countless times, but that's what separates him from a lot of players."

It's also what has the Rockets positioned to make serious postseason noise.

With Dwight Howard anchoring the interior, they can defend well enough to survive. However, it's Houston's high-powered offense that will ultimately decide the length of its playoff run.

The Rockets have one of the NBA's most potent attacks—as long as Harden is on the floor. With him, this offense averages 110.9 points per 100 possessions, well clear of the Miami Heat's league-leading 109.5 offensive rating. Without him, that number falls to 102.8, which would rank just 20th overall.

Mar 5, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) and Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) against the Orlando Magic  during the second half at Amway Center. Houston Rockets defeated the Orlando Magic 101-89. Mandatory C
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Harden makes the game easier for the players around him, which is the defining characteristic of a full-fledged NBA superstar.

He's a dynamic driver, knockdown shooter and prolific passer.

With all of the attention he demands from a defense, it's no surprise Synergy Sports (subscription required) indicates that Houston boasts a top-three attack when it comes to pick-and-roll screeners (1.11 points per possession, third), off-screen shooters (1.01, second) and off-ball cutters (1.32, second).

Surrounded by complementary scorers and a superstar sidekick, Harden has the Rockets blazing through the stretch run.

If his postseason encore remotely resembles what he's doing now, he just might carry this team along the path to the podium.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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