You get the feeling that in watching James Harden dismantle the admittedly dismantleable Detroit Pistons, everything was unfolding according to a plan with more longevity and steam behind it than one might think.
Who knows when Harden began drawing it up in his head? Maybe as a kid as he practiced by himself on a basket, or in high school and college when he continued to lead his teams singlehandedly. Either way, at some point, James Harden must have decided: I want to lead a team on my own. I want to be the guy on a professional team. It didn't have to be the Rockets — it could have been any team.
I don't think there is any question that Harden has the talent to be a number-one option, and I think we knew this prior to his explosion against the Pistons. But can he actually BE a number one option? We saw some hints last night that it may be possible. Harden is a playmaker as a scorer and as a passer, the latter of which we rarely saw from him in Oklahoma City because he was asked to simply play the role of "lightning rod scorer" off the bench.
Now, Harden's role is different. He can finally start coloring outside the lines. He's here to go out and make plays and to do so without a leash or a role or any form of inhibition. I think he's been waiting for this for three years, for everything to shake out like he planned it.
Nobody would dare compare playing for the championship-contending Oklahoma City Thunder to lying starved for years in the Chateau D'if, but I swear, last night's performance had Edmund Dantés' fingerprints written all over it. After every basket and after every assist, Harden must have checked off an achievement in his head, with plenty more left to go.
We knew Harden was capable of putting up these numbers at least once — he's done it before — but it shouldn't have happened in his first game on a new team (after just two practices), and it shouldn't have been so easy. It reminded me of Tracy McGrady in his prime, when T-Mac could think of an option for a play and then go out and make it happen right away. We won't jump the gun on comparisons just yet, but for one night, that's what it looked like.
It was the way Harden got his 37 points, his 6 rebounds, his 12 assists... it wasn't awkward or forced or weird. Harden literally glided himself — seriously, in the smoothest way — to every single stat you saw him put on the board. Contrary to Bob Costas' descriptor of the Oakland A's' wining streak in the movie Moneyball, there was absolutely no element of randomness to any of it at all.
We can go on about Harden's deficiencies on defense or perhaps the lackluster opponent from last night or anything else along those lines, but today, I'd rather not talk about that.
Instead, let's talk about the good, this potential breath of fresh air for a franchise and a fan base if Harden can somehow play to this level or near it on a regular basis. And before you rile up the comments section with "It was just one game!" and yada yada yada, please consider what Jason Friedman wrote in his recap last night:
Too much? Going a tad overboard with the hyperbole? Perhaps. But haven't Rockets fans earned the right to enjoy an evening of overreaction at this point? Besides, no one rational is talking titles or anything of the sort right now. It's only one game and Detroit bears no resemblance to the dominating Bad Boys of Motown's hoops halcyon days. The Rockets themselves were quick to point out postgame the myriad issues that must be addressed, and quickly. In particular, there were too many turnovers and, save for the always-inspired efforts of Asik, defense seemed optional for the vast majority of Houston's players until the decisive fourth quarter.
But just as crystal clear were the many splendored glimpses the Rockets gave of the beginnings of something special, something worth truly cherishing: Chandler Parsons' all-around game; Asik's defensive wizardry; Lin's ability to break teams down off the bounce; Greg Smith's inspired energy which kept alive several critical possessions; and, yes, James Harden's absolute mastery of the pick-and-roll.
Enjoy the contagious absurdity, Rockets fans. It may not stay here for long, but please, feel free to believe that it will.