For a while there, it looked as if James Harden’s bid for a second straight Most Valuable Player award would be dead in the water. It wasn’t just that he appeared, well, mortal to start his 2018-19 campaign. More importantly, it was that his exertions, however much, amounted to squat in the grand scheme of things. The Rockets, whom he led to within two quarters of a Finals berth last May, were sputtering off the gate; they seemed to alternate wins with losses, racked as much by offseason changes in the roster as by injuries to key players in the updated rotation.
And then Harden happened — the MVP version, that is. Including yesterday’s victory over the highly regarded Nuggets, the Rockets have claimed 12 of their last 14 outings to go seven games above .500 and move to fifth in the West, thanks for the most part to his otherworldly showing over the period. Coinciding with their run of success is his assault on the record books, highlighted by five consecutive 40-point outings, triple-double after triple-double, and clutch baskets galore. The numbers are remarkable in and of itself; as the eye test has proven, he’s putting them up under extreme pressure, what with point god Chris Paul still sidelined due to a strained left hamstring.
How dominant has Harden been throughout the Rockets’ ascent? Consider this: He initiates the offense up top, surveys the landscape, and acts accordingly in a series of predictable moves. And yet he’s still unstoppable, with others around him forced to be reactive as opposed to proactive in light of his unique skill set. His stepback jumper has become the deadliest weapon in pro hoops, powered by his dynamic range and relative accuracy and backstopped by uncanny court vision that keeps potential help defenses honest.
It’s not all good, though. To awaken the Rockets from their stupor, Harden has literally had to carry them; his usage rate has jumped to an absurd 37.9%, a full six percentage points higher than the next player in the rankings. True, he exudes an indefatigable air. On the other hand, critics need only cite the whimpering end to his MVP season to underscore the potential of yet another breakdown. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has carried a reputation for running his stars ragged and vulnerable to fatigue in the midst of a deep playoff run.
For now, the Rockets are doing fine. In the little time that Harden is on the bench, stats have shown that they’re actually outscoring the opposition. When the matches matter and the pace invariably slows down, however, he will have to be at his level best. Fans are hoping he still has enough left in the tank by then. Else, they’ll be left ruing a repeat of history, never mind that the lessons were there all along for all and sundry to learn.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.