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James Harden pushed Rockets past Bucks with defense and that’s becoming a trend

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Believe it, man.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Houston Rockets Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah, we’ve heard it all before.

James Harden doesn’t play defense.”

“Hey, I saw a Youtube video from 2015.”

“James Haren (No D).”

“He’s not a true superstar because a true superstar plays both ends of the court”.

There’s more. I don’t need to continue. One stroll through Twitter comments or media MVP ballots (spoiler, Bill Simmons left Harden off of his MVP ballot entirely) shows the disrespect The Beard still deals with.

But a superstar’s journey is often a long one, and the days of James Harden’s defensive lapses being legitimately meme-worthy are long in the rear-view mirror. It might not have always been this way, but Harden is winning games down the stretch against elite competition on the strength of his defense.

First, in the bubble opener against the Dallas Mavericks, Harden was sublime at both ends. If it wasn’t enough that he went for 49 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists on 14-20 shooting, he was also dominant — yes, you heard that right — dominant on the defensive end, racking up 3 blocks and 3 steals and a whole reel of highlights, including several big ones down the stretch the helped cap Houston’s victory. In addition, just check out this stat line from The Beard when he was guarding the Mavs’ two biggest threats.

Harden followed that up with an encore performance in last night’s big victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. He wasn’t as smooth offensively, going for just 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists on 5-14 from the field, but he was once again game-changing on the defensive end. Yes, haters: game-changing.

The Beard piled up 6 steals on the night and a ridiculous and game-best 97 defensive rating. No other primary player for either team was lower than 106. For reference, defensive stud Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with a 112 defensive rating.

Harden’s two biggest defensive plays of the game came against the reigning and soon-to-be-again MVP, in the closing moments, and with the game on the line.

“Even a blind squirrel finds a nut or two?”

“A flash in the pan,” you say (and I’ve heard that)?

Nope, sorry, this is simply part of a much larger trend involving the most polarizing superstar in the NBA. But the truth is out there. You just have to accept it.

If you recall, back in the All-Star Game, James Harden was specifically called out as being targeted by Giannis. Harden responded by clamping down on the Freak, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam down the closing stretch. Big time stuff.

Sure, the stakes weren’t high in the All-Star Game. But they sure are in these seeding games. And this has been going on for far longer than that. Harden was really good in the post last year, becoming one of the league’s top defenders down low. He’s responded by being even better this year, despite being the most targeted player in the NBA on this play type.

Make no mistake, this is a long-term trend. And one that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Is Harden perfect defensively? No. He can still be taken advantage of off ball, and his immense offensive usage means he can occasionally be caught napping. But the man is affecting outcomes in all stages of the game right now — points, rebounds, assists, leadership, defense — and that makes him one of the top three or four players on the planet in my book.

I just hope these teams and players continue to be foolish and attack Harden directly, victims of their own attempts at confirmation bias. We have enough evidence on our hands that it’s going to continue to turn out in the Rockets’ favor, and we have James Harden’s maturation into a complete superstar to thank for that.