Monday NBA Roundup: Rockets Must Help Historically Dominant James Harden

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 8, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC -  NOVEMBER 7: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Washington Wizards on November 7, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

James Harden is going to force a referendum on the definition of value.

Because as he continues to post stats indisputably worthy of MVP consideration, his Houston Rockets teammates aren't doing enough to get him the lofty win totals award voters demand.

Coming into Monday's 114-106 win over the reeling Washington Wizards, Houston had been the NBA's biggest two-face. With Harden on the floor, the Rockets outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions. For context, that would have ranked behind only the full-season figures the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors posted last year.

When he sat, opponents mauled Houston got 30.3 points per 100 possessions. There is no helpful comparison for that figure. But if you want to get imaginative about it, that's roughly the differential you'd expect from a game between an NBA team and a pack of milk-drunk feral cats.

To narrow that yawning on-off chasm, Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni swapped Corey Brewer into the starting lineup for Eric Gordon. It was an imperfect move, but one that, in theory, could have utilized Gordon's offensive talents to prop up the second unit.

The Brewer-Gordon exchange didn't have much of an impact on the game. However, the Wizards' sensible defensive tactics—make anyone but Harden score—affected the proceedings early.

Harden's teammates weren't up for the challenge initially, and he forced the action. The Rockets star accumulated six turnovers in the first half as the Wizards trapped and double-teamed him at every opportunity. At least at first, Harden was pressing, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen

Harden well on his way to a triple-double. Had five points, five assists and five turnovers in quarter. Really forcing things in traffic.

He wasn't bothered for long.

To counter the pressure, Harden whipped passes to corner shooters, spoon fed Clint Capela for lobs and accepted his fate as facilitator. And then, the Wizards lost focus and defensive integrity (which tends to happen for a team ranked near the bottom of the league in defensive rating). That's when Harden reverted to his usual approach: scoring on everyone, in every way, all the time.

He keyed a 12-0 fourth-quarter run that put the game out of reach, posting a plus-nine on the night that grossly undersold his impact.

Harden, on brand, was unguardable, as Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine observed:

Dan Devine @YourManDevine

Holy cow, what an evil in-and-out dribble with the left hand by Harden to split the double on the PNR trap and get to the rim. He’s unreal.

Yes, his individual stats were again dominant. Harden scored 32 points and assisted on 15 Houston baskets. It was his fourth game this year with at least 30 points and 15 assists. Last year, there were only three such games in the entire NBA all season.

He's the only guy in the last 30 years to post those totals three times in a month, per Justin Kubatko of Statmuse:

Justin Kubatko @jkubatko

Per @statmuse, James Harden is first player since Dec. '86 to have 3 games w/ 30+ points and 15+ assists in a month: https://t.co/amWcjRPQiR

There are three weeks left in November, by the way.

The numbers fail to illustrate Houston's singular dependence on Harden. Watch any stretch of Monday's game in which the Rockets strung together buckets. Harden was either scoring them, setting them up or commanding enough attention to make it easy on everyone else.

ClutchFans @clutchfans

Mike D'Antoni on James Harden: "That's a pretty nice weapon to have. I don't know if you noticed or not."

There's a discussion to be had about whether the style of play D'Antoni and the Rockets have chosen is an optimal one. Something about the nature of basketball as a team sport makes this one-man stuff feel a little wrong. And it's worth noting Houston, even with Harden producing at historic levels, is only 4-3 and needed a late surge to beat the 1-5 Wizards.

This is mediocrity the hard yet individually spectacular way.

D'Antoni's lineup move suggests he's concerned, and the Rockets must find answers or risk wasting Harden's efforts.

Perhaps Houston should slow the pace to a crawl whenever its best player sits. Limit possessions he can't affect. Hope that by running down the shot clock and walking the ball up, opponents can't maximize the return. Knowing D'Antoni, it's hard to imagine him seeing a slower tempo as a solution to anything, though.

Lineup tweaks are a good start, and maybe Patrick Beverley (when he returns) could imbue the second unit with a defensive mindset.

Realistically, Harden is going to play somewhere in the neighborhood of 37 minutes per game. The Rockets need to stumble along without him only for short stretches. If there's a way for them to do that—whether through rotation moves or sneaky strategic gambles—Houston's ceiling is high.

And Harden might snag the MVP his numbers warrant.


Curry Did Not Miss 10 Three-Pointers Again

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 7:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates against the New Orleans Pelicans on November 7, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Stephen Curry set an NBA record with 13 made three-point shots, finishing with 46 points in the Golden State Warriors' 116-106 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a solid follow-up to his most recent effort, a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in which he went 0-of-10 from three and broke a streak of 157 straight games with a made triple.

In this one, he hit easy shots and ridiculous ones:

And the record-breaker looked like this:


This is what history looks like! #ThisIsWhyWePlay https://t.co/wuXPfLqyp6

The Warriors surged to a massive second-quarter lead behind some scorching shot-making from Curry and flashes of what their offense could someday become but then gave the whole advantage back in the third quarter. Turnovers, half-interested defense and a general certainty they’d win reduced the Warriors to a mess.

Curry had to heat up again, and Draymond Green had to conjure his most rabid defensive self to secure the victory against the winless Pelicans.

Basically, the Warriors looked a lot like they did last year: intermittently transcendent and disinterested. Curry and reliable five-minute surges from the Death Lineup were good enough to make that formula work last year, so maybe Golden State is getting back to a familiar (if occasionally frustrating) formula.


Prepare the "I Told You So" Cannon

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 07:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets reacts after a play against Jeff Teague #44 of the Indiana Pacers during their game at Spectrum Center on November 7, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

This whole thing with the Indiana Pacers transitioning from their gritty, defensive past to an uptempo offensive present always felt wrong.

Hiring Nate McMillan, a coach with a conspicuous history of playing slow and leading poor defensive clubs seemed dangerous. Trusting Myles Turner to man the middle, pairing one small guard (Jeff Teague) with another (Monta Ellis) and essentially performing the overhaul all at once in one offseason?

Sketchy. Risky. Dangerous.

For anyone who spent the summer doubting, the first half of a 122-100 blowout loss to the Charlotte Hornets offered validation.

John Schuhmann of NBA.com highlighted an individual weakness:

John Schuhmann @johnschuhmann

The Hornets have scored 27 points on their first 10 possessions vs. Indy. Went to MKG in the post vs. Ellis on 3 of the first 4 poss.

While the Hornets' official feed broke out the record books to contextualize how Charlotte got whatever it wanted as a team:

Charlotte Hornets @hornets

Hornets tie franchise record for most points in a first half at 75 (1/2/93 vs. New Jersey Nets and 4/12/93 vs. Philadelphia)! #BuzzCity

After that showing, Pacers assistant Bill Bayno offered this up to Jeremiah Johnson of Fox Sports Indiana, via Scott Agness of Vigilant Sports:

Scott Agness @ScottAgness

"We don’t know who we are defensively right now.” — Pacers assistant coach Bill Bayno to @JJFSINDIANA before the second half.

It's not that complicated: The Pacers are the team many skeptics expected them to be. If they don't know who they are and what they created, that's on them.

Sorting this out will take personnel changes or a massive in-season defensive leap from Turner. Otherwise, Indiana will have its own occasional big scoring nights, but opponents will get loose like the Hornets did with regularity.


Looky, Looky

Despite missing George Hill because of a sprained thumb, the Utah Jazz torched the Philadelphia 76ers by a final score of 109-84.

The Sixers are 0-6, but try watching this play and telling me they're winless:

Joel Embiid scored 14 points, grabbed nine rebounds and did that thing up there in 19 minutes.

He's never going to pass, he's always going to try to do a little too much with the ball and all this losing might eventually stunt his growth. But Embiid still stands as the lone atom of meaning in the cosmic void that is the Sixers.

If and when this mess ever works out, he'll be the reason.


This Is How OKC Will Win

Russell Westbrook will keep getting his numbers, but if the Oklahoma City Thunder really do brush off Kevin Durant's departure and remain a playoff threat, they'll do it on defense.

OKC held the Miami Heat to 36.9 percent shooting in a 97-85 win on Monday, stifling the Heat attack in a brutally effective stretch bridging the second and third quarters. In that 24-minute span of basketball, Oklahoma City allowed 34 points, five fewer than it scored in the first quarter alone.

Westbrook contributed 14 points and dished 11 assists in only 27 minutes while Enes Kanter mopped up inside with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

For things to go right, it had to be this way. The Thunder, sans Durant and Serge Ibaka, have no spacing. They have few creators outside of Westbrook and one of the worst offensive wing rotations in the league. Survival was always going to depend on defense.

Monday found OKC getting by just fine, per Royce Young of ESPN.com:

Royce Young @royceyoung

Good grief, the Thunder are just suffocating the Heat. Andre Roberson has been absolutely spectacular.

At 6-1 (the best seven-game start since moving to Oklahoma City) and ranking among the top five in defensive efficiency, OKC is doing more than surviving.


Autopilot Has Never Looked So Good

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Clippers have done this before.

Boasting unparalleled continuity and chemistry, the Clips casually deconstructed the Detroit Pistons on Monday, coasting to a 114-82 win to move to 6-1 on the season. It was like they were giving a lecture on team play...only instead of words, L.A. was communicating via thoughts, as ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz noted:

Kevin Arnovitz @kevinarnovitz

Clippers in a place where they know exactly what they want to get & how they'll get it on every possession. Basketball telepathy right now.

This is no small thing. The Warriors are struggling to integrate new pieces. The San Antonio Spurs are transitioning out of the Tim Duncan era. The Cleveland Cavaliers are only entering their third year together.

The Clippers' familiarity with one another gives them an advantage.

It may not matter if the bench can't sustain its early production or if one of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan doesn't stay healthy. But it's a joy to watch a team this connected. 


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