HOUSTON -- He had already played 36 minutes and done everything to nail shut the crate and put the Thunder on ice when James Harden drove to the basket one more time.
The layup went down and so did Harden, taking bumps from Enes Kanter and Jerami Grant and landing hard on his left wrist along the baseline.
Now it was finally OK to take him out of the game with 38.2 seconds left in another day at the Rockets’ shooting gallery that produced a 137-125 win.
This was another one of those games that was hyped by ABC and everybody else that hasn’t been paying attention as a late-season showdown between Harden and Russell Westbrook with the KIA MVP Award up for grabs.
From coast-to-coast there were sandwiches made, cold beers popped and feet propped up expecting to see Westbrook and Harden try to put Devin Booker’s 70-point game from Friday night somewhere in the rearview mirror.
Westbrook did his part, firing in 18 of his 39 points in a fourth quarter that began with his team down by 25.
But rather than go tit-for-tat, shot-for-shot, Harden did what he has been doing all season — no more and no less than has been necessary to get the next win.
Look, Harden has more weapons at his disposal than Westbrook and he knows it. So he knows when and when not to pull the trigger.
Somebody mentioned in the post-game locker room to teammate Trevor Ariza that Harden didn’t put up numbers on Sunday.
“Are you kidding?” Ariza asked. “Look at those numbers.”
They were 22 points, 12 assists and five rebounds.
Maybe not as gaudy as Westbrook’s 36th triple-double of the season, but far more deadly and effective.
“I don’t think that in his mind he was trying to prepare himself to play 1-on-1 with somebody,” Ariza said. “This is a team game and the main focus for him is winning.”
With Harden pulling the levers and setting the table, the Rockets got 31 points from Lou Williams and 24 points, six rebounds and six assists from Ariza. The Houston bench — Williams, Nene and Sam Dekker — piled up a combined 56 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and three steals on 21-for-28 shooting. Assuming starter Ryan Anderson (sprained ankle) is fully mended, that bench will also have Eric Gordon when the playoffs begin.
So while he can light the fuse on those 40 and 50 point explosions at any time, this is Harden at his most capable and dangerous.
“I think that’s gonna go further in the playoffs,” he said. “We’re gonna need everybody playing a high level and as long as they know I have confidence and trust in them, no matter when it is, whether it’s the first play of the game or the last play of the game, that’s gonna get me further than anything else.”
“He understood that Eric Gordon and Trevor and Lou Williams were going off,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “He could’ve easily gotten 40 points and he could’ve just kept on going…But he knew those guys were going and he threw the ball their way. He just plays the game the way it should be played.”
Harden stood in front of his locker dissecting the win and looking ahead to the postseason while barely glancing down at the extensive tape job that ran from his left forearm to halfway down his fingers. When asked if he’ll keep playing, Harden simply broke into a wide grin for the TV cameras.
“The Denver game (Monday) he fell on it,” D’Antoni said “In New Orleans (Friday) he was iffy to play. But he played and it’s just something he’s going to have to put up with the rest of the year. It’s tendon. He jammed it. You never know. Look, if he needs a rest, he’ll rest to get well.”
But if you know Harden, you know he never wants to rest and that is another attribute that spreads throughout every nook and corner of the Rockets’ roster.
“I don’t believe in resting,” said his backcourt partner Pat Beverley. “I think that’s (expletive). I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think fans deserve better. I could care less if coaches ask players to rest or not. That’s up to you to play or not. And if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t agree with disrespecting the game because there was a time when I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was try to get here. To me, resting is disrespect to me, disrespect to the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.
“Is James gonna play? Of course.”
It has been a splendid season of individual accomplishments throughout the league. From the mind-boggling numbers of Harden and Westbrook to the both-ends-of-the-floor brilliance of Kawhi Leonard to the nightly production of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
“The league is getting better all the way around,” Harden said. “You’ve got younger guys like Booker who score 70. Isaiah Thomas in Boston. John Wall in Washington as well.
“The league is growing. Guys are getting better, more athletic. Bigs are shooting 3s now. It’s fun to watch. I know I’m happy to be a part of it and I just gotta continue to go.”
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