Call James Harden the "Iron Chef of Houston," because when he's cooking, the Houston Rockets (47-23) can't be stopped.
In Monday night's 110-100 win over the Indiana Pacers, Harden ripped the Eastern Conference's fifth-best defense for 44 points (10-of-21 shooting; 21-of-22 from the free-throw line), seven assists, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
According to the Rockets' official Twitter account, Harden now leads the league in 40-point performances:
Nineteen of Harden's 44 came in the fourth quarter, and as the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen noted, that total alone made the rest of his teammates look like mere mortals:
Harden's explosive outing was also historic in two ways, according to Feigen and the Rockets:
In his pursuit of the NBA scoring title, Harden actually made more free throws (21) than the Pacers attempted as a team (19). Call it boring, call it systematic, call it aesthetically displeasing, but that process produces results.
Chef Beard, your thoughts?
Now fractional points back of Russell Westbrook for the top spot on the NBA's scoring leaderboard, Harden's ability to consistently cook up 5-star dishes has kept the depleted Rockets in prime position to capture home-court advantage when the first round of the playoffs rolls around.
According to Feigen, "The Rockets on Saturday fell to 6-11 in games James Harden has not scored at least 20 points (including the game he missed)."
But when he scores 20 or more, the Rockets are 41-12, good for a winning percentage of .774.
"We got to pick it up,” Corey Brewer said following Saturday's 117-102 loss to the Phoenix Suns, according to Feigen. "We can’t put it all on James. We can’t ask Dwight (Howard) to do a lot when he comes back right away. Our second unit, we have to keep doing what we do, come in, move the ball, get baskets."
Houston will need more than Harden to make a deep postseason run, but as the regular season draws to a close, his brilliance may be enough to stabilize the team's quest for a top-three seed.
As long as he's keeping in line with his season-long average of 10 trips to the charity stripe, Houston should be in good shape—artistic qualms from outsiders be damned. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Houston is now 28-5 when Harden attempts at least 10 freebies, which is comparatively bonkers.
"So, if we’re going to talk about carrying a team by the scruff of its neck to the playoffs, let’s not just give credit to guys who are duking it out to barely make it—let’s give credence to the man who has put his team in contention for the No. 2 seed in spite of less help and more adversity," Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta wrote.
With the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs on four- and three-game winning streaks, respectively, in pursuit of Houston's No. 3 seed, Harden is ready to set the table and prepare an unforgettable meal.
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More Moving and Shaking in the East
While Harden was busy picking the Pacers apart, the Boston Celtics took care of business, 110-91, against the Brooklyn Nets behind Evan Turner's second triple-double (19 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds) of the season.
Following Indiana's sixth straight loss, here's how the bottom of the East stands at present:
|The Race for 6th, 7th and 8th (Through March 23)|
|6. Milwaukee Bucks||34-36||19.0||L6|
|7. Miami Heat||32-37||20.5||L1|
|8. Boston Celtics||31-39||22.0||W1|
|9. Charlotte Hornets||30-39||22.5||L1|
|10. Indiana Pacers||30-40||23.0||L6|
|11. Brooklyn Nets||29-40||23.5||L1|
As Celtics Blog's Kevin O'Connor explained, the next three days will help provide a bit more clarity as that group of teams gets set to square off in consecutive contests:
On the bright side for Brooklyn, at least Deron Williams (10 points, 2-of-6 shooting) still has a wicked crossover:
The Butler's Back
Jimmy Butler (elbow) returned from a three-week absence, and in typical Chicago Bulls fashion, head coach Tom Thibodeau didn't ease him back into action. Butler played a game-high 40 minutes, totaling 19 points (6-of-20 shooting) and nine rebounds in the Bulls' 98-86 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
According to Bulls Radio's Jeff Mangurten, Chicago officially clinched a playoff spot with the victory:
Although it was nice to see Butler back roaming around on the wing, rookie Nikola Mirotic overshadowed the 25-year-old's return by amassing 28 points (10-of-19 shooting), eight rebounds and a posterization of Hornets big man Jason Maxiell:
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mirotic has been the league's most prolific fourth-quarter scorer this month:
So much for Andrew Wiggins running away with Rookie of the Year honors.
Memphis Joins the Postseason Party
Like the Bulls, the Memphis Grizzlies punched their ticket to the playoffs Monday night with a 103-82 drubbing of the New York Knicks.
According to Grizzlies PR's Ross Wooden, Memphis has been one of the West's most consistent teams this decade:
However, ESPN Stats & Info pointed out that sustained success is a departure from the franchise's woeful ways of the past:
Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol teamed up to run roughshod over the Knicks' less muscular frontcourt, scoring 23 and 21 points, respectively. Randolph also topped all Memphis players with five assists, marking the fifth time this season (and fourth time this month) he's crossed that distributive threshold.
LaVine Shines Late
The Utah Jazz were without Gordon Hayward (shoulder), and the lack of a reliable off-the-dribble scorer doomed the offensively inept Utah Jazz in a 106-104 overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Rookie Zach LaVine rose to the occasion, scoring a game-high 27 points while hitting a career-high five threes, including a gutsy pull-up attempt to tie things at 96 with under 15 seconds to play in regulation:
Wiggins stepped up with 22 points of his own, just the third time this month that he's reached the 20-point plateau.
More importantly, Minnesota's win allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to move within a game of the NBA's second-worst record.
Washington Experiences Third Quarter of Doom
Those poor Washington Wizards. Trailing by just three points at halftime, they thought they stood a chance against the Golden State Warriors.
Alas, the competitive spirit died in the third quarter, when Golden State posted a 29-8 advantage and held Washington to a single made field goal. ESPN Stats & Info noted Washington's third-quarter performance:
Klay Thompson (ankle) returned from a three-game absence and chipped in eight points, while Stephen Curry ran the show behind tallies of 24 points, six assists and five rebounds. The Warriors were plus-30 during his 28 minutes on the floor and ran away with the win, 107-76.