James Harden’s always been a great player, but something different is happening this season.
He’s having that moment, when the best of the best take that final (and often the most difficult) leap, the one that allows them to bend the realities of the game practically at will against the greatest of their peer competition.
It took the last truly great Rocket until age 30 (1992-1993 season) to morph into his final form, and although Hakeem Olajuwon wouldn’t win his first title until the following year, it was that season when the Dream entered that basketball matrix, able to control the game on a string. And it all started when new coach Rudy Tomjanovich came in and said, in effect: I’m going to put the ball in the hands of my superstar, surround him with capable role players, and trust him to make the right decisions for this basketball team.
Mike D’Antoni has done the exact same thing for the 27-year-old James Harden. After last night’s 126-99 Game 1 thrashing of the 61-win San Antonio Spurs, D’Antoni explained to ESPN that’s been his plan since day one: give the ball to Harden and trust him to make the best decision for the team.
"We don't run plays for people. Maybe if there is a timeout sometimes, but they are getting what the offense produces, and James is the producer in the sense that he reads it. If it's Clint, if it's Trevor, if it's Ryan, if it's Pat Beverly, he just picks out what he thinks is the right guy. On a given day, different guys will step up. If we share the ball, then we have no problems."
And unlike a certain recently departed former teammate of Harden’s that has yet to take (and may never take; let’s be honest) that final step, The Beard recognizes the one, single most important facet to any superstar’s final maturation:
James Harden via TNT #Rockets "there is no individual efforts here, I've been saying it & preaching it all year, I'm nothing without them"— Joshua Reese (@MrJoshua) May 2, 2017
Once a supreme talent has that final and full revelation — that only his teammates can take him to the promised land — his game becomes transcendent. And that’s what were witnessing with The Beard.
Harden had just 20 points (he rested the entire fourth quarter), but he was in complete control of that game last night. He finished with 14 assists, shot the ball himself just 13 times, and contributed on the defensive end with 4 steals.
He was the architect of a playoff masterpiece — the Rockets were up by as many as 39 points at one point in the second half when the starters will still playing — and it’s important to remember Houston doesn’t have a single All-Star Game appearance among any player on their team not named James Harden. A rarity atop either conference. Harden’s success (and the Rockets’) is predicated on making sure those guys are all equally involved in the game.
Ryan Anderson told ESPN, in an obvious dig:
"That's why he's so great, because he's not out there holding the ball in his hands the whole time, shooting 20 shots in the first quarter. He's a guy that wants to feel the rhythm of the game, feel the flow of the game, make the right play. A lot of times, teams focus on him, so he knows if he passes the ball off, he’s going to get a wide-open shot for somebody else.”
This was the symphony of efficiency he orchestrated:
Ultimately, it is only one game of a long series against a very tough opponent, but those of us who have been watching the Rockets all season have seen this coming. It’s been at a slow build since late November, and the maturation of The Beard is now out there shining on the national stage. It’s why we’re all so offended that the MVP trophy won’t be in H-town this season. Harden has taken that step.
Who knows how the rest of this series goes? The Spurs are the Spurs and they’ll be bouncing back. The Rockets could also be too athletic for San Antonio and run them out of the series. Even if that does happen, Houston still has to likely go through Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, then probably LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to get to NBA gold. The road to a title is still long and arduous.
But regardless of how these NBA Playoffs unfold, it should be obvious to anyone watching that the fortunes of a superstar and the franchise he plays for are entering a legitimate title-window and award-winning period. The Beard has roughly the next five seasons of prime basketball.
Remember, Olajuwon should have won the MVP in ‘93 as well, if not for a make-up call to Charles Barkley. It doesn’t always happen when it should. The Rockets won back-to-back titles the following two seasons.
We should all be thinking title this year, Rockets fans. Houston is playing that well. But no matter what happens this postseason, you rest assured: there are Bearded trophies in our future.