• Print

New Sheriff In Town

James Harden riding high after lifting Houston to latest signature win

HOUSTON - These boots were made for stomping.

On a night when James Harden arrived decked out in his Houston Rodeo finest replete with cowboy hat and footwear to match, the Rockets’ snazzy superstar delivered a performance perfectly befitting his pastoral ensemble. This was no city slicker, suit and tie (stuff). This was a get-your-hands-dirty, country strong, ‘He can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n’ next level bucolic beatdown.

For 31 minutes of overwhelming and outlandish production, James Harden went straight up John Wayne on the Pacers, punishing them for all the pain they’d levied his way in the past. All of those struggles against Indiana, all the anemic shooting percentages and high turnover rates they had forced from him due to their smothering, suffocating defense, all made irrelevant during the awe-inspiring reckoning he unleashed Friday night.

Funny thing is, the contest actually began the same way so many others had against the Pacers. Harden missed the game’s first shot, then proceeded to turn the ball over twice (his only two turnovers of the game, by the way) in the opening minutes. A growing sense of déjà vu seemed to slowly be settling in. And then that sensation was summarily shattered to smithereens.

Houston’s ball movement was exquisite the vast majority of the evening, so it was only appropriate that Harden’s first bucket came via a strong, off-ball cut down the lane that freed him up to receive and dunk home Dwight Howard’s perfectly timed bounce pass. Three minutes later, a scramble resulting from an offensive rebound created a clean look for Harden to knock down a 3. The second quarter then saw him score another five points – solid, but nothing spectacular and certainly nothing that hinted at what was to come.

Because what was to come was pure, unadulterated rapture of the sort that makes watching sports worthwhile: a leaping, deftly anticipated and perfectly timed steal that mere moments later led to one of his three third period triples; a thunderous, signature one-handed hammer dunk that prompted pandemonium among the frothing, frenzied Toyota Center crowd that suddenly smelled blood in the water; and several primal screams, punctuating the end of the on-court exorcism that had just taken place.

For both Harden and his team, Friday night’s masterpiece represented just the latest sign of their growth while providing firm evidence that this version of the Rockets is a very different animal than the one the Pacers so easily tamed back in December. Harden is healthier and so is the team around him, but also significant is the fact that there now exists a much better understanding of fit, function and how each piece must ideally operate within the framework of Houston’s rather unique puzzle. Roles have been defined. Pace and movement are no longer mere buzzwords but rather regular elements of the Rockets' attack. Where once ‘stickiness’ seemed to be the term du jour on offense, unselfishness far more frequently reigns supreme. And lockdown defensive efforts of the kind seen Friday are becoming increasingly common too, producing a dual threat combination that allows the Rockets to weather rough patches and win games in a variety of different ways.

“As a fan of basketball, it was fun to watch the team play like that,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale after his club had put the finishing touches on its 112-86 win over the Pacers.

“Earlier in the year I thought there were times when we played against teams that played that same sort of stacked defense and everybody took an extra dribble instead of letting the ball fly, or they would drive in and take a tough shot as opposed to driving in and kicking it out. That’s part of the improvement of our team: we’re doing a much better job of making the extra pass and the guys are enjoying it and they’re enjoying each other. They’re enjoying each other’s success.”

That much is apparent in everything these days from the raucous celebrations routinely witnessed on the Rockets’ bench to the high jinks that accompany the bass-pounding music that can make the club’s post-game environment more nightclub than locker room. There is genuine joy present in both, and it’s been fascinating to observe how Houston’s on- and off-court chemistry feed off each other, flowing back and forth while steadily growing more powerful, more dynamic and more secure. Winning works wonders that way.

To that end, the Rockets appear well positioned to keep the good vibes coming. Yes, the schedule promises to remain brutally challenging for the next week or so. And yes, the Western Conference is a veritable badland, offering harsh terrain and no time for rest or relaxation. But when navigating one’s way through the wild, wild West, it never hurts to have a tried and true gunslinger on your side. James Harden dressed the part Friday night. Then he delivered. And as he strode out of Toyota Center clad in cowboy boots and hat once more, he headed not toward the sunset, but toward a future that looks brighter than ever.