James Harden is the MVP of the NBA, and it’s never been more obvious than it was Tuesday night in Portland when he dropped 42 points to end the Blazers’ 13-game winning streak 115-111.
Harden was the Rockets’ engine all night long, starting and ending the game with exclamation points, including two three-pointers late in the fourth quarter that effectively put the game out of reach, despite a furious Blazers rally.
Chris Paul chipped in with 22 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists — including two clutch free throws after apparently pulling his hamstring with less than 2 seconds left in the game — and was the maestro of a massive stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters, bringing the Rockets back from down 6 points when he checked in to up 6 points when he checked back out with 6:44 left to play.
The Rockets needed the effort from their two Hall of Famers, because they didn’t get it from a handful of their rotation pieces, most notably Clint Capela. The Swiss Roll looked out of sorts for most of the night — save a posterization on Jusuf Nurkic — and finished with 5 points, 6 rebounds and a -5.
Trevor Ariza forgot to bring his shot on this road trip, but hit his only three when the Rockets needed it most. Ditto P.J. Tucker, who contributed everywhere, including a big block and bigger offensive rebound (how many times have we seen that this year?) down the stretch.
The game was a see-saw affair, neither team able to stretch a lead to double-digits. The Blazers are a heck of a team, even when their best two players don’t play well. They were the inverse of the Rockets: their role players, especially Jusuf Nurkic, Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, were incredible, while C.J. McCollum and especially Damian Lillard were ice cold. It made the MVP chants Lillard received from the Moda Center crowd all the more ironic considering what the actual MVP was doing on the other side.
Back to Harden: He went for 42, plus 6 rebounds and 7 assists. Even when the Blazers sent two guys at him, he scored.
For most of the game, the Blazers decided to cover him one-on-one and stay home on shooters. It didn’t work preventing the Rockets from getting hot from deep, since they shot a blazing 52.8 percent from deep. It didn’t work at preventing Harden from scoring either, since he got to the rim at will. The only Rocket who was neutralized was Capela, who Nurkic and Ed Davis never left when Harden went at the basket. Rather than tossing lobs, Harden simply made layups.
The Rockets are now 57-14, and need just two wins to set the all-time franchise win mark. They have their next five games at home, four of which are against losing teams. After the Raptors ended their 17-game win streak, they have rattled off six straight. They remain the best team in the NBA. The only concern is Chris Paul’s hamstring. I don’t expect him to play against the Pistons Thursday night.
- Some players just kill the Rockets. Corey Brewer (both on and off the team). Manu Ginobili. Al-Farouq Aminu is high on that list. The lanky forward scored 16 points in the first quarter, more than half of the Blazers’ total. He finished shooting an absurd 6-8 from deep and led the Blazers with 22.
- James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon combined to score 42 of the Rockets’ 55 first half points. This is impressive but also not how the Rockets want to be winning basketball games.
- C.J. McCollum’s footwork is ridiculous. With his build and size, he has no right being as good as he is. But his feet are so effective and his shot is so pure that it doesn’t matter what he lacks. He and DeMar DeRozan are my two favorite non-Rockets guards to watch because of how they use their feet. Splendid. Bonus: C.J. was a journalism major in college, as was I. J-School kids gotta stick together (except when we are fighting tooth and nail for a dwindling number of jobs).
- Players Only remains the worst thing to happen to the NBA viewing experience in years. Nate Robinson was insufferable, Derek Fisher was forgettable. Brent Barry is awesome, but he’s better alongside Kevin Harlan than being forced to be the straight man. At one point, Nate Robinson said “we” when he talked about the Blazers. He was openly rooting for them. It was bizarre, considering he’s never played for either team, but mostly infuriating. The only thing that made this better is Charles Barkley wasn’t in the studio to continue the anti-Houston bias, although, to be fair, I muted the studio show so it might have continued. DEATH TO PLAYERS ONLY.