Rockets guard James Harden is breaking the game – but saving the season

We are getting to a point with James Harden now where he is just about ready to break the game.

It’s borderline ridiculous. If a defender doesn’t impose themselves physically, Harden scores. If they do anything more than breathe in his vicinity, it is a foul. If he gets fouled, he sinks his free throws.

And if you don’t foul, when it really matters, he does something silly like driving a game-winning dagger into the bottom of the net and deep into your soul, like against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night.

Houston Rockets fans got the Christmas gift of their dreams – a fully-fit, highly-motivated, unshackled and invincible version of Harden, with a point to prove and a chip on his shoulder.

The results since aren’t best told by numbers, but let’s start there anyways. Beginning on Christmas Day, Harden has collected five straight games of above 40 points. Going back to Dec. 11, Houston are 11-1, and Harden has top scored every night. He’s blitzed defenses for 481 points across those 12 games while lifting the Rockets to fourth in the Western Conference.

He hasn’t been playing chumps. LeBron James’ Lakers couldn’t stop him, nor could the Oklahoma City Thunder, nor the Boston Celtics, nor the speedily-improving San Antonio Spurs.

And on Thursday, in a rematch of last season’s West finals, right at the end of a game where the Warriors had led by as many as 20, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and 27 feet of Oracle Arena real estate couldn’t stem Harden’s flow either.

“Certain players change the game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Harden is one of those guys. He has changed the way people draw fouls and he has gotten really good at it. He’s the best in the league at it.”

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Harden’s numbers are getting into Kobe Bryant/Michael Jordan territory, although it looks markedly different to either of those greats. He’s been to the line 67 times in just his last four games, but Harden has little time for critics of his approach’s aesthetic value.

“Stop fouling,” Harden said. “It’s simple.”

For those who are getting a little weary of scoring rates spiking faster than the pre-slump Dow Jones, there is nothing of solace for you here. Unlike the stock market, Harden shows no sign of a dip and why would he? He’s just getting warmed up, and the NBA’s restrictive rules on defensive contact give him, and others savvy and technical enough to exploit the system, a huge advantage.

But here is the thing. Harden’s dramatics could be the precise factor that turns the postseason into a worthy spectacle and ends the recent run of predictability. Back in the early weeks of the campaign, the surprisingly woeful form of the Rockets had people talking about one issue more than any other.

If Houston wasn’t going to be a contender, who could challenge the Warriors?

The answer, still, is “probably no one”, certainly in the West. The Denver Nuggets lead the conference but are still some way and one superstar shy of being a postseason heavyweight, while the Thunder will need Russell Westbrook to rediscover his mojo if they are to be a lingering force.

Houston, and Harden, are the likeliest shot at toppling Golden State. They were the closest anyone came last season, getting into a 3-2 before an untimely injury to Paul. Despite the Warriors’ occasional stumbles this season, who else can go head-to-head with them on near equal terms?

Harden’s style is not to everyone’s liking. The game slows when the free throw stripe is called into excessive use and takes away from what is best about basketball, its pace and rhythm and extraordinary athleticism.

But maybe it is a small price to pay. Having Harden, the most dominant player in the game right now bar none, taking the challenge to the team of this generation, is a match-up well worth seven games of anyone’s time.

The Rockets are surging so rapidly that they are on course of leapfrog into a preferential playoff position. They are 3.5 games back from the Nuggets and finely positioned for a run at the No. 2 and maybe even the No.1 seed.

Harden against hapless defenders with whistle-happy referees on permanent standby – that’s not a fair fight. Yet if The Beard’s current streak is setting up the league for a thrilling playoff slugfest? Well, no harm, no foul.

Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @RogersJourno

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