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Daydreams, Delusions and the Devastating Power of Harden

February 21, 2013 2:12 am EST

HOUSTON - What is truly impossible? Where does one draw the line between sensible belief and the sort of hope that appears downright delusional?

Down 14 in the fourth quarter to the juggernaut known as the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rockets fans could hardly have harbored much in the way of rational hope for a victorious outcome even amid the most ideal of circumstances – and these were nothing remotely resembling the most ideal of circumstances. Trade winds began blowing in Houston before Wednesday’s tip-off, leaving the Rockets without the services of four players – three of whom had been regulars in the club’s rotation all season long. Chandler Parsons was attempting to gut his way through a sprained right ankle he had sustained late in the third quarter. Thabo Sefolosha was making mincemeat of Houston’s (prudent) plan to do everything it could in an effort to force the ball out of Kevin Durant’s hands, draining one triple after another on his way to setting a career-high with 28 points. And also perpetually looming, of course, was the Rockets’ 0-7 record this season against the three teams – OKC, San Antonio and the Clippers – comprising the Western Conference elite.

Hoping for a Houston win in the face of such dismal state of affairs didn’t just border on delusion; it seemingly was the dictionary definition of delusion itself. Until, that is, James Harden, Jeremy Lin and the rest of the Rockets dunked delusion on its head, launched threes in the face of improbability and promptly rallied for what turned out to be the team’s signature victory of the season, a stirring 122-119 triumph over the Thunder.

Befitting a night that featured a heaping helping of the unthinkable, Harden’s stat line in particular reads like something straight out of a surrealist’s tale of a basketball savant: 46 points on 19 shots; 7-of-8 from beyond the arc; an effective field goal percentage of 92%; 8 rebounds, 6 assists; just two turnovers. This point can’t be hammered home often enough: Mere mortals are not supposed to be able produce numbers like that. Not against anyone, but especially not against teams like OKC. The game is not that easy. For Harden, however, it seems as if it sometimes is.

That is, of course, the gift of genius: an ability to make the sublime and supernatural seem absurdly simple: The downhill drives through the lane after slicing through a double-team; the step-back threes; the cross-court, one-handed skip passes to wide-open teammates; the pinpoint pocket passes to his bigs diving hard toward the rim off the pick-and-roll; that Eurostep ... Holy mother of all things holy, that Eurostep. Watching him night after night, seeing the game-by-game growth in his decision-making and game management, it’s almost become easy to take what he’s doing for granted. Then along comes a night like this and immediately that foolish sensation gets blasted to smithereens. How can anyone take this for granted, especially after enduring three straight years of an existence devoid of a true superstar?

Make no mistake: Wednesday’s win was hardly a one-man show – no victory, especially one over the likes of an elite team like the Thunder, ever is. On nearly any other night, Jeremy Lin would have been Houston’s headliner after putting up 29 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds himself. Lin was absolutely outstanding throughout, but especially so during the final two minutes when he knocked down a pair of threes to put the Rockets ahead and give them the requisite breathing room they would need to keep Oklahoma City at bay. Chandler Parsons’ gritty return played a pivotal role too, as his defense on Durant down the stretch helped Houston generate the stops it had to have to be able to mount a rally in the first place. And Carlos Delfino, Omer Asik and Greg Smith each delivered meaningful minutes and key moments as well.  

But ultimately the Rockets won because they had the best player on the court Wednesday night. Read that sentence again. In a game that featured Kevin Durant (and Russell Westbrook, no slouch himself), the Houston Rockets had the best player on the floor. Little wonder then that after the game Houston head coach Kevin McHale called Harden “a phenomenal offensive force” with no real offensive weaknesses, or that Jeremy Lin rattled off his teammate’s stat line, shook his head in shock and awe and confided that he’d never witnessed anything like that before. But perhaps nothing was more telling that Harden’s response to a reporter who asked him if he was trying to send a message to his former teammates with his extraordinary performance. The 23-year-old just chuckled and replied that he tries to send a message every single game.

Wednesday night it’s safe to say that message was received loud and clear: Remove the restrictions, raise the expectations and feel free to bask in what others might refer to as delusion. Who knows what’s actually impossible now? Real, rational hope is just a Harden hoop away. 

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On perseverance) “We were trying to load up. We were trying to get the ball out of Kevin Durant's hands and tried to get the ball out of Russell Westbrook's hands the best we could. We said, 'Hey if (Serge) Ibaka and (Thabo) Sefolosha have big nights, we're in trouble.' They both had pretty good nights. Sefolosha made pretty good shots. That was just one of those games where we just kind of hung around and hung around. We got a couple of steals that really helped us and then James (Harden) was just phenomenal. That's as efficient of a game  as you can have in the NBA as a two guard. You can't get anymore efficient than that. He (Harden) went 14 of 19, 7 for 8, 11 for 12, 8 boards, 6 assists, 2 turnovers and threw a steal in there too. It was really an impressive performance by James and that big 3 (pointer) he made in the left spot was huge.”

(On the defensive play after Chandler Parson's return in the 4th quarter) “The two guys we were trying to keep on (Kevin) Durant were Chandler and Carlos (Delfino), a little bit more size and we were trying to load up and come over and tried to be proactive and aggressive then loading up and trying to make them see bodies and stuff. You run the risk but again, like I said, we were trying to leave the far corner open and just said hey, if they made shots, which they did, for awhile there I thought they beat our scheme but we kept sticking with it and it was a helluva win.”

(On the shock of the trades made before the game) “It's always funky. It's a crazy business. I adjusted a little bit before the game because nobody really knew what was going on until right before the game. I said 'Hey guys, this is who we've got. We're going to go to war right now. Let's go get a win,'”

(On James Harden's play) “He's a phenomenal offensive force. He can drive it. He' s got the ability to shoot it. He's got the ability to beat you off the bounce. I think he's almost un-guardable off the catch. His first step is so deceptively fast and strong and he changes direction...when he plays off the catch I just think he's absolutely as good as it gets. Tonight, especially in the first half, right when he plays off the catch and he just kept on getting us up past...he was making passes because we were trying to load up to him but James has really no offensive weaknesses. He can really see the floor. He's just a hell of a basketball player.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On the win) “It's good for us to get our 30th win and play well coming off of the All Star break. We've got a tough stretch but I think this is where we really need to lock in and focus on each and every game.”

(On the Rockets overcoming adversity and coming back from being down 14 to get the win) “I just told the guys who were on the court that we've got to do whatever it takes. We've got to get some stops together and make some shots. It's not going to be easy. They (Thunder) are a very good team but we got some stops at the right times and guys made big shots.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On how his ankle feels) “It's really sore. It was more scary than anything honestly. I have never really rolled an ankle like that and just rolled it. It's really sore. It's more like my foot. It is very low on my ankle. I've never really had this before. I just have to do a lot of rehab and hopefully not miss any time but it's definitely really sore.”

(On their play in the 4th quarter) “We stuck to our game plan. I thought we played great defense. (Thabo) Sefolosha hit some shots and we can live with that. We were focusing on (Kevin) Durant and (Russell) Westbrook. We were trying to make it difficult for them and making sure our help side was there and that's going to allow some time for other guys to get shots. Sefolosha stepped up and made some shots but that's what we wanted.”

(On how he feels about the win after the trade) “Twenty minutes before, we found out four of our guys were traded so it definitely was the weirdest game I had ever played in. It was tough to focus, it was hard to block with four friends leaving. That's a huge win for us and I thought we really showed something tonight, fighting through that and staying focused and just playing a really good team.”

JEREMY LIN

(On the Rockets effort) “We fought really hard tonight and we didn't know what to expect. It was an emotional night for all of us. I am just proud of the effort from the entire team and I am just thankful to God that we were able to pull out this win.”

(On James Harden's night) “If he is not up for MVP consideration, I mean, I don't know what else he needs to do. 46 points on 19 shots. I mean, he made every single big play down the stretch and even the shots that I was able to have, they were created because of him. Man, he played phenomenal tonight.”

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER COACH SCOTT BROOKS

(On the game) “You have to give them (Rockets) a lot of credit, they’re a tough team to stop, they lead the league in scoring, spread the floor, and they have great three point shooters. We’re not going to win when we give up 3 thirty plus point quarters. You have to give them credit. James (Harden) was fantastic. He’s an All-Star and we know what he is capable of doing. As a team, we gave up too many points, 66 points in the second half is not us, it’s not what we pride ourselves on. We have to regroup and figure it out defensively. It hasn’t been to our level on the road for a while now but we have to change that. It was a good offensive performance by a lot of guys, Kevin (Durant) triple double, (Russell) Westbrook’s almost triple double, and Thabo’s (Sefolosha) 28 points, those things mean nothing since as a team we pride ourselves on the defensive end of the floor. None of those guys are going to feel good about having a good offensive game when we lose.

(On James Harden and the Rockets) “Give them credit and James (Harden) had a great game. They were moving us and they have a small lineup that can really shoot 3’s. We know what James can do, he’s an all-star and a terrific player and we’ve seen him get hot. We tried a few players on him, a few different schemes, and in the 4th quarter nothing seemed to work. Any time you play against your former team, its natural to feel a lot of pride against them, it’s nothing personal. I’ve known him obviously for a while. He’s a competitor and he plays hard and he’s not trying to get us, he just wanted to win the game. We wanted to beat him and his team. I’ts not about us against James.”

KEVIN DURANT

(On what happened in the 4th quarter) “They got hot, we got cold and they played defense and we didn’t.”

(On the Thunder defense) “We were trying to play defense but you have to give them credit because they made some tough shots. They hit some tough 3’s. James (Harden) hit seven 3’s and six of them were contested and one was wide open. He hit some tough shots and that’s what great players do and he willed them to victory. He passed the ball well, he shot the ball well and they got the win and we didn’t.”

(On his experience in Houston for All-Star weekend) “Houston was a great host. They took care of us. This was my fourth All-Star game and I was really excited to be here. Playing along side my teammate Russell (Westbrook) and my former teammate James (Harden), so that was a lot of fun. I’m ready to look forward to the rest of the season.”

RUSSELL WESTBROOK

(On the 4th quarter) “Houston just made some tough shots.”

(On his play) “I was just trying to stay aggressive and make some shots.”

(On James Harden) “I don’t know, he probably did (want to beat us). He (James Harden) just made tough shots.”

(On his All-Star experience) “It was alright, I’m just tired.”

THABO SEFOLOSHA

(On the fourth quarter ) “Too many turnovers and you have to give them credit, they made some big shots when it mattered.”

(On James Harden) “He had a great game. He’s a hell of a player. There were a few situations where we could’ve done better defensively but he really made some tough shots. Overall, we stuck to the game plan but he really had a great game.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sold out crowd of 18,224 for tonight’s game. Overall, the Rockets have 11 sellouts in 2012-13.

The Rockets overcame a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win 122-119 over Oklahoma City tonight, as Houston outscored the Thunder by a 25-10 margin over the final 6:22 of the game. Houston also closed an 11-point gap with just 2:29 left to play for a dramatic 104-103 win last season at Oklahoma City (3/13/12).

Houston now has nine double-digit comeback wins on the season, which includes erasing a 13-point gap with just 9:39 left in the fourth quarter of a 107-105 win vs. the L.A. Lakers (12/4/12).

The Rockets racked up 65 points in the second half of tonight’s game. Overall, Houston has now recorded 21 60-point halves on the season.

Houston finished 15-of-33 (.455) from 3-point range tonight, which included going 8-of-13 (.615) from beyond the arc in the first quarter alone. It marked the most treys in a quarter for the Rockets since an 8-of-13 (.615) fourth quarter at Utah (1/28/13).

The Rockets now hold an all-time record of 20-12 when wearing their alternate uniforms featuring the “ketchup-and-mustard” color scheme.

James Harden registered a career-high 46 points (14-19 FG, 11-12 FT), eight rebounds and six assists tonight, which included setting his career best in 3-pointers made with a 7-of-8 performance from beyond the arc. It marked the third 40-point game of his career and the second this season. Harden totaled his previous career best of 45 points (14-19 FG, 2-4 3FG, 15-17 FT) at Atlanta (11/2/12). He actually went a perfect 4-of-4 from downtown for 14 points in the first quarter alone.

Jeremy Lin collected 29 points (12-22 FG, 3-5 3FG), eight assists, six rebounds and two steals. Overall, it marked his ninth 20-plus point performance of 2012-13.

Chandler Parsons finished with 17 points (6-15 FG), six rebounds, four assists and two steals tonight despite suffering a sprained right ankle.

Carlos Delfino made his third start of the season tonight (two at guard and one at forward). Delfino nabbed a season-high four steals to lead the Rockets to a 13-theft night.

Russell Westbrook recorded 28 points (8-20 FG, 9-10 FT), 10 rebounds and eight assists tonight. Westbrook entered this game averaging 22.6 points, 8.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds on the season.

Kevin Durant posted the second triple-double of his career with 16 points (4-13 FG, 8-9 FT), 12 rebounds, 11 assists and two steals tonight.

Thabo Sefolosha scored a career-high 28 points (11-16 FG, 6-10 3FG) tonight, surpassing his previous best of 22 points done twice before (last on 2/9/08 at Utah).

Serge Ibaka added another five blocked shots tonight. Ibaka finished with 12 blocks against the Rockets this season (4.00 bpg).