You can count on one hand the number of NBA players who do as much for their teams as James Harden does for the Houston Rockets. The reigning players' choice for league MVP ranks second in scoring, eighth in assists, second in usage rate and sixth in player efficiency rating.
But for all his contributions, particularly on the offensive end, Harden has struggled to keep Houston humming along at its 50-plus-win pace from the past two seasons. For the Rockets to return to those heights—and, perhaps, reach another level—in the top-heavy Western Conference, Harden will need plenty of help from the rest of his running mates.
His supporting cast came through in a big way Tuesday, propelling Houston to a 115-102 win over the short-handed Miami Heat to snap a three-game skid. Even with Dwight Howard suspended for swiping at an official and Clint Capela sidelined by a thigh injury, the Rockets scrounged up six double-figure scorers, led by Harden's 26 on 10-of-19 shooting from the field (3-of-8 from three).
The Rockets' All-Star 2-guard got his teammates involved early and often against the Heat, who didn't have Hassan Whiteside in their starting lineup or Tyler Johnson on their bench. Harden helped on each of Houston's first three baskets of the night and found Trevor Ariza and Josh Smith for threes early in the third as the Rockets extended their lead to 68-55.
By the time Houston head coach J.B. Bickerstaff pulled him from the game with three minutes, six seconds left and his team up 110-93, Harden had matched his career high with 14 assists. This comes less than two weeks after Harden piled up 14 dimes, along with 33 points, in a loss to the Detroit Pistons.
This time, though, Harden also did his duty on the defensive end. He helped Houston hold Dwyane Wade to 16 points on 6-of-18 shooting and drew rave reviews from CBS Sports' Matt Moore for his efforts:
That marked a stark departure from the norm for Harden this season. However you slice it, he's taken a disconcerting step back as a defender. The shot charts say so, per NBA Savant:
So do the opponent shooting percentages by zone:
As does the decline in his defensive real plus-minus from one season to the next:
|James Harden's Defensive Real Plus-Minus Rating|
|Defensive Real Plus-Minus||Rank|
What hasn't changed—and for the good of the team—is Harden's penchant for getting teammates involved. He's accounted for double-digit assists 10 times this season, which is eight shy of his personal-best total from 2014-15. With the talent Houston has around him, Harden shouldn't have too much trouble reaching, if not exceeding, that mark.
Patrick Beverley (14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, 3-of-4 from three), once solely a defensive specialist, has turned into a reliable threat from deep (a team-best 42.8 percent on threes). Marcus Thornton (18 points in 23 minutes) has been a spark plug off Houston's bench all season. Terrence Jones (11 points, seven rebounds) and Corey Brewer (10 points) both bring tons of length, athleticism and versatility to the table.
And where gaps have emerged in Space City, Josh Smith has been there to fill them. He certainly was against Miami. Smith stepped in at center for Howard, his childhood friend, and came through with a season-high 19 points, including a trio of threes.
The Rockets will need Smith and the rest of their role players to keep up the good work, lest they risk slipping in the standings and wearing out Harden. At 26-25, Houston sits in seventh place out West, just a game-and-a-half up on the eight-seed Portland Trail Blazers, two games ahead of the ninth-place Utah Jazz and three-and-a-half clear of the Sacramento Kings in 10th.
That's no place for a team that came into the season with championship expectations after cracking the Western Conference Finals last spring. It's also a place the Rockets don't figure to stay for long if Howard can recapture the stellar form he was in prior to spraining his ankle against Detroit.
Just four games separate the Rockets from the No. 5 seed and a playoff rematch with the Los Angeles Clippers. Bridging that divide won't be easy, not with the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks standing in between and a brutal schedule upcoming. Houston will play 12 of its next 15 games away from the Toyota Center, with trips to Golden State, Portland (twice), Utah, Chicago and Toronto mixed in.
All the more reason, then, for Harden to lead by example and the other Rockets to follow suit.
Boston's Bench Comes Up Big at MSG
Even with Isaiah Thomas' All-Star selection and Jae Crowder's emergence as a potent two-way force, the Boston Celtics remain a team without a true cornerstone.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. On the flip side, they're among the deepest in the NBA. On any given night, the C's can dig through their 10-man rotation to find some unexpected help.
On Tuesday, in a 97-89 win over the New York Knicks, that assistance came courtesy of Tyler Zeller, Evan Turner and Kelly Olynyk.
Zeller (16 points, 10 rebounds) tallied his first double-double of the season. During the fourth quarter, Turner took over Boston's offense in the pick-and-roll, hitting three jumpers and finding Zeller and Olynyk (11 of his 13 points in the final frame) once each for easy scores.
The win avenged Boston's 120-114 loss in the Big Apple from mid-January. More importantly, it gave the C's their sixth victory in seven outings as they tied a season high at six games above .500 and moved into fourth place in the East.
Not bad for a team without a superstar.
If Some Is Good, Morris Better
The Phoenix Suns dropped their first game of the post-Jeff Hornacek era 104-97, but Markieff Morris didn't seem to mind playing for interim head coach Earl Watson. The Suns' disgruntled forward posted season highs in points (30), rebounds (11), assists (six), blocks (tied, two) and posters (this one), as Sports Illustrated shared:
Morris, you may recall, has been on bad terms with the Suns since the team traded his twin brother, Marcus, to the Pistons over the summer. Despite Markieff's public protestations (and the $10,000 fine he incurred because of them), Phoenix opted not to capitulate to his demands.
"We made an organizational decision to go forward this year with Markieff Morris on the roster; it obviously hasn't worked out the way we hoped it would," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said Tuesday on the Doug and Wolf show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. "We're still optimistic that he gets it turned around and starts playing up the level that he's played at the last few years."
So far, McDonough's optimism is paying off—and could yield a nice return should the team decide to move Morris before the Feb. 18 trade deadline.
Damian Lillard isn't the only member of the Portland Trail Blazers who has a bone to pick with the coaches' All-Star selections.
C.J. McCollum submitted yet another worthy application for snub status during Portland's 107-95 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The Lehigh product poured in 30 points—his fourth game of 30 or more this season—to go along with six assists, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 34 minutes.
McCollum's been fantastic for Rip City all season, contributing 20.9 points and knocking down 39.1 percent of his threes from night to night. Since mid-January, though, he's kicked it up a notch to 23.9 points on 51.2 percent shooting (41.5 percent from three).
Then again, whatever gripes McCollum might have still take a backseat to Lillard's. The two-time All-Star, who went for 14 points and 12 assists against Milwaukee, didn't get a third nod despite averaging career highs in points (24) and assists (7.2) and keeping the rebuilding Blazers in playoff contention.
Vintage Kobe Saves Lakers from Infamy
The Los Angeles Lakers slid into Tuesday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on a 10-game losing streak. One more, and these Lakers would've stood alone as the biggest consecutive losers in franchise history.
Kobe Bryant, though, was having none of it. The Mamba scored a season-high 38 points on 10-of-21 shooting with seven threes, 11 made free throws, five rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals in 33 minutes during Los Angeles' 119-115 win. In doing so, Bryant joined Reggie Miller in thumbing his nose at Father Time, per Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk:
The Lakers needed every bit of Bryant's old-school brilliance to fend off Andrew Wiggins (30 points, five rebounds) and the T-Wolves. L.A.'s future Hall of Famer pushed his squad to a 16-point third-quarter lead—but his young teammates blew it by the middle of the fourth quarter.
Bryant, however, had enough left in his tank to tally 14 of the team's final 18 points, seal its 10th win of the season and make sure the skid didn't go to 11.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.