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When the Rockets needed James Harden most, he gave them history

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The MVP delivered his finest performance yet when the burden was all on him.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

I hope you all watched. I hope you were all witnesses.

After James Harden’s magical night Tuesday, all I could do was laugh. He put up 60 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and 4 steals. The Rockets needed every single number, every single bucket.

Chris Paul was out with a groin injury, Trevor Ariza was out with a hamstring injury. Eric Gordon left the game with a back injury. Those three combine to average 51 points, 12.8 assists and 12.9 rebounds per game.

The Orlando Magic are not a particularly good team, and they were without their best player, Aaron Gordon. It didn’t really matter — they were hitting shots, especially down the stretch, at a crazy high level. On the other side, Harden did what he so often does: held the ball, controlled the game. It worked more beautifully than it ever had before.

The shot that he hit to give him the Rockets’ franchise single-game scoring record — a stepback, three-pointer while getting fouled — will likely go down as an iconic moment in a Hall of Fame career. It is his signature shot, and he hit it at the perfect moment, in the perfect way.

He scored his 60 on 30 shots, including 14 from behind the arc. He hit 14 of his 16 two-point attempts, and 17 of his 18 free throws. This was The James Harden game to end all James Harden Games.

The Rockets have one target this year, and it’s in Oakland, California. That team lost Tuesday night, on the business end of a 30-point spanking from the Utah Jazz. The Rockets are now three games behind Golden State — just two in the loss column — and hold the all-important tiebreaker.

Harden played 46 minutes Tuesday, and make no mistake, before March is over, we’ll hear hand-wringing about rest and fatigue. Deservedly so. I will probably be among the hand-wringers! But any chance to actually capture the top seed in the West must be chased after. The Rockets have won just two games against the Warriors in their two playoff matchups over the last three years, and both were in Houston. Three games is no small gap against the Warriors, but it’s not a chasm either.

Let’s return to Harden, though. There is already talk about how this game put him back on top of the MVP race. I’m not sure who was supposed to be ahead of him before tonight considering he’s the league’s leading scorer and the engine of its second-best team playing with (for now) no other All-Stars.

Setting aside how dumb the national media is about Harden, this night is his. He got the rare LeBron-Kobe double tweet.

He passed Russell Westbrook as the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history, and needed 10 fewer shots to do it, of course. It should be said that Harden’s 53-point, 17-assist, 16-rebound masterpiece still had a higher game score on basketball-reference than Westbrook’s 57-pointer, but none of that matters now.

James Harden stands alone in the history books, alone on top of the NBA for the moment. It is where the Rockets needed him to be on a night without half of his teammates.

As he has done since he arrived in Houston, he gave his team exactly what it needed: everything.