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So Easy, So Harden

December 20, 2012 12:04 am EST

HOUSTON - Easy, deceptive grace. That is James Harden’s game in a nutshell.

He patiently picks his spots, his eyes betraying nothing as he sizes up the defense, biding precious fragments of time while the computer in his mind calculates the proper angle at which to attack. When he does, it’s with a quickness that is sudden yet hardly otherworldly by NBA standards. So often he beats his man instead by baiting him; unleashing his long arms, longer strides and those strong hands which cradle the ball while practically begging for defenders to try to knock it away. They can’t help themselves. They reach. They slap.

And fall right into the trap.

Such is the core and the crux of the matrix in which Harden invites those who dare defend him; a place where everything around the 23-year-old seems to slow down while he glides past with an efficiency of motion that borders on sublime. He is a scoring, Eurostepping machine and right now he is operating at a rate that is downright robotic.

The Philadelphia 76ers became the latest victims of his methodical scoring spree after watching him drop 33 points on 7-12 shooting during Houston’s 125-103 victory at Toyota Center Wednesday night. But the Sixers are hardly alone. In fact, support groups should be forming around the nation this month since Harden is averaging nearly 30 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds per game over the course of his last seven contests. And the efficiency with which he’s put up those numbers is just as jaw-dropping. During that stretch Harden is shooting 50 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from beyond the arc and a scintillating 92.7 percent at the line where he’s averaging 11.7 free throw attempts per game.

No, Philadelphia never had an answer for him Wednesday night. But scroll through his game log from this season and it quickly becomes clear that very few teams have.

“I used to guard him,” said Chandler Parsons, when asked what makes Harden such a handful on the offensive end. “He’s strong and he uses his body very well. He holds the ball low with his strong hands and gets a lot of foul calls. He’s quick and he can really dribble; pick-and-roll, he can split it, so I really think it’s just his strength and his ball-handling – it’s tough to guard. Once he gets into the lane, he’s getting to the hoop or he’s getting a foul call.”

The latter scenario featured as many sequels as a horror movie franchise Wednesday night as Harden repeatedly sliced, diced and feasted on Philadelphia with his ability to get into the paint either in isolation situations or by taking advantage of those high screens he uses as well as anyone in the world (it’s true – out of players who have used at least 50 pick-and-roll possessions this season, James Harden has generated more points per possession than any other player, according to Synergy Sports). But amid all the destruction, he was creating, too, dishing out a game-high seven assists as well.

His teammates, meanwhile, were only too happy to take part in the carnage. Jeremy Lin shot the lights out while putting up 18 points of his own, marking the second straight game Houston’s starting backcourt has combined for 50+ points. Omer Asik absolutely owned the inside, racking up 17 points and 15 rebounds. And Greg Smith was a monster during the deciding stretch late in the third quarter and into the fourth, scoring 10 straight points as the Rockets turned a close game into a rout.

Standing at the center of it all was Harden, who is now on pace to potentially enter some rarified air in Rockets’ lore. Only four players in franchise history have scored 2,000 points in a season – Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tracy McGrady. There is a long way to go yet. But Harden is currently on track to join them.

Do such things matter to him? He wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. But ask him questions along those lines and he’ll answer the same way he approaches a set screen: coolly, calmly and conceding nothing toward his true intent.

“The numbers don’t really do a lot unless you’re winning,” he says, “so that’s the most important thing for me and for my teammates is to win games. You get a lot of recognition from winning so that’s on my mind right now.”

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

(on the difficult of defending Harden)

James is a handful in transition. He starts coming downhill on you and he’s got the side-to-side and he’s just hard to guard and gets fouled a lot.

(On team's play)

“Tonight we had 29 assists, which was good. James (Harden) led us with seven. The really encouraging thing was four for Chandler (Parsons), five for Marcus (Morris), six for Jeremy (Lin). We did a nice job on ball distributing. The thing that was frustrating for us was, we would get a missed initial and then we couldn't get it. They had 21 second-chance points against us tonight. I can see us starting to build a little momentum. We've got to continue this now and we've got a tough game. Our next game against Memphis is going to be tough. We've got to come out and play better. I'm starting to see us react a little better to certain situations. We've got to go out and get stops. If we get stops we can get out and get some pace in game.”

(On team's free throw attempts)

“James had 18 free throws on his own tonight, which is hard to do. The thing that I liked is that our centers had 13 attempts between Greg (Smith) and O (Omer Asik) because they were showing a little bit on the pick-and-rolls. Jeremy is starting to get more into a flow. James already attracts a ton of attention on the pick-and-roll so all of our role guys can be open. We just gotta be able to find them with our passes.”

(On different roles on the team)

“There are nights that all of our guys have had tremendous nights. They're all capable. It’s just that James (Harden) is kind of the head of the spear. He's the guy that takes us out and gets us going a lot. The other guys are very, very capable. For me and for our team, its just ball movement and body movement on the offensive end but getting stops is our big thing.”

JEREMY LIN

(on Harden)

He’s been so consistent getting to the foul line. People have had a tough time finding an answer for him. He’s doing a great job keeping us going.

(on what makes it so hard to defend Harden)

He is extremely quick and he’s strong. His steps are so long and he does a great job of creating contact, but not directly in the chest. He’s going side-to-side but downhill at the same time.

(on his Europstep)

It’s very hard because that second step has to be really explosive and he does a great job of being explosive. Some of that … you gotta just have it.

(On the chemistry between himself and James Harden)

“We were both just playing off of each other and learning what that means. We got into a good rhythm today for sure. He attacked and I attacked and that's how we like it.”

(On his playing more aggressive offensively)

“I am definitely being more aggressive.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On the key to the Rockets sustaining their lead) “I think we did a pretty good job for four quarters of playing well, especially defensively. I think we got some stops and got out in transition.”

(On where the Rockets are chemistry wise) “We are still building. We are getting a lot better than where we started but it’s not going to happen in 25 games, so there is time to get more practices and more games under our belt. A lot more things should be clicking.”

(do you feel like you’re an All-Star in this league?)

That’s going to come with winning to be honest. The numbers don’t really do a lot unless you’re winning, so that’s the most important thing for me and for my teammates is to win games. You get a lot of recognition from winning so that’s on my mind right now.

CHANDLER PARSONS

(on what makes it so difficult to defend James Harden)

I used to guard him. He’s strong and he uses his body very well. He holds the ball low with his strong hands and gets a lot of foul calls. He’s quick and he can really dribble; pick-and-roll, he can split it, so I really think it’s just his strength and his ball-handling – it’s tough to guard. Once he gets into the lane, he’s getting to the hoop or he’s getting a foul call.

TONEY DOUGLAS

(On the close of the game down the stretch) “Defense, don't let up, play possession by possession. Score and stop, score and stop. I know when I'm on the court or on the bench, I tell the team in the huddle or on the court. If I'm on the court, don't let up. One stop at a time. That's how you got to look at it. You can't look at it like there’s 8 more minutes in the fourth quarter. Let's go possession by possession.”

(On his shooting in the fourth quarter) “I was in my zone. I played defense. I was in my zone.”

GREG SMITH

(On the win) “We were sluggish at first. They came back and cut the lead down to two and we started to stay focused on the game plan, locking up (defensively) and making extra passes and taking the first and second option. We were rebounding and really crashing the boards. We came in and played team ball and got the win.”

(On the importance of the win) “Christmas day we are in Chicago. We have Minnesota and San Antonio. We have to win these games because when it comes down to it, we are going to need to have these games so that we can make a seventh or even sixth seed. We need to be focused coming to practice, watch a lot of film, and basically come out and play hard.”

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS COACH DOUG COLLINS

(On the game) “We hung in there for about as long as we could. We just couldn’t get any stops and harden controlled the game. We are just so undermanned.”

(On Turners injury) “I don’t know we’ll have to wait and see. “

(On the Rockets and Harden) “He is a great, great player. He gets to the line, gets in the paint and we hung around, but we just ran out of gas. The only guy I could have dribble the ball up the court was Dorell (Wright). We lost Evan (Turner) and we didn’t have Jrue (Holiday) obviously. Houston is a good team and they played very well. They spread the floor well and they have the big guy in the middle that rolls through the paint and of course, James Harden.”

(On his team’s recent play) “It’s not easy with all our injuries, but this is the NBA. At the end of the day, when you put a loss behind your name as a coach, they don’t ask who they played in the game. There is no asterisk that says you’re undermanned. That’s just the way it works.”

NICK YOUNG

(On 76ers play) “It just a lot of stuff and we find ourselves trying our best out there. We just have to pull straight and stay together as a team and come out with a greater sense of urgency. We have to force our way into a win the next game. We make tries towards the end of the game, we just couldn’t make shots and then (Toney) Douglas hit four in a row. We just have to get it together as a team.”

EVAN TURNER

(On his injury) “I hurt it worse at the beginning of the year. I can walk on it. When I went back in, coach thought I was too stiff to move and he took me out and I went back and iced it. I really don’t know how it happened, I went into somebody’s body and I felt my ankle turn a little bit and that was it. I was running and I tried to plant and the ankle just gave out”

SPENCER HAWES

(On the 76ers being short handed) “We’re battling and there’s no excuse not having the guys out there. Houston started out the game and got up on us and that’s been a theme for us letting teams jump on us and then we fight to get back but its real hard to get over that hump.”

(On the Rockets) “They are a little bit unconventional the way they really spread you out. They kind of take turns and with (Omer) Asik on the pick-and-roll they take turns driving him with shooters all over. It’s a very tough match-up. You have to take better care of the basketball against them. “

(On Asik) “He’s gotten a lot more opportunity. A lot of guys what separated them is being ready when their number is called. He’s in a great position here in Houston with his skill set.”

THADDEUS YOUNG

(On how to win) “For me personally I always go into every game with a defensive mindset and right now we are trying to out score teams and we don’t have one twenty point scorer that we can go out and say here’s the ball, go out and get us twenty or thirty points. Houston has one. We have to try to get it in our heads that defense is what wins games. We know we are wounded and were down a few men, but that is no excuse for us to go out and lose basketball games. We have other guys that have to step in and step up their game.”

NOTES

Houston opened with 33 first-quarter points and went on to record a wire-to-wire 125-103 win over Philadelphia. It was the first time the Rockets have not given up the lead in a game since a 104-87 victory last season at Sacramento (4/8/12).

The Rockets closed out the game tonight with a season-best 69 second-half points, including 36 points in the fourth quarter. The previous high was a 66-point second half vs. Utah (12/1/12). Houston has now recorded nine 60-point halves this season. The Rockets also prevailed 93-87 last season vs. Philadelphia (2/22/12), closing out the game with 32 fourth-quarter points.

Houston finished 42-of-75 (.560) from the field tonight, setting its season high for field goal percentage. The Rockets are now a perfect 5-0 this season when shooting .500 or better in a game.

The Rockets made a season-best 30 free throws tonight (30-36), surpassing a 28-of-36 night from the free throw line vs. San Antonio (12/10/12). The 76ers went 17-of-24 from the line. Over the prior four games, opponents had twice as many free throw attempts than the 76ers.

The 76ers took a 14-7 edge in offensive rebounds tonight. Philadelphia also outscored the Rockets by a 21-6 count in second-chance points, which included a 16-0 advantage in the first half alone.

James Harden totaled 33 points (7-12 FG) and seven assists tonight, as well as setting career highs in free throws made (17) and attempts (18). Harden has now posted 20-plus points in each of his last seven games played (12/7/12-12/19/12). The last Rockets player to have seven 20-point outings in a row was Kevin Martin with eight straight in 2010-11 (3/12/11-3/29/11).

Jeremy Lin collected another 18 points (8-12 FG) and six assists tonight. Lin came into this game off 22 points (9-15 FG) and a game-high eight assists in a 109-96 win at New York (12/17/12). Lin and Harden have now combined for 50-plus points in each of the last two games (50 at New York and 51 tonight).

 Omer Asik posted 17 points (5-7 FG, 7-9 FT) and 15 rebounds tonight, giving Asik 11 double-doubles on the season.

Toney Douglas had 17 points (6-11 FG) and four assists tonight, which included a season-high-tying five makes from downtown (5-8 3FG). He also went 5-of-7 from beyond the arc vs. San Antonio (12/10/12).

Marcus Morris registered 14 points (5-8 FG, 2-3 3FG), five boards and a career-best five assists tonight.

Nick Young had a team-high 21 points (8-18 FG) off the bench tonight, marking his third 20-point game of the season. The Philadelphia bench actually accounted for 65 points tonight.

Dorell Wright finished with 20 points (7-15 FG, 3-7 3FG), six rebounds and six assists tonight. He also scored a season-high 25 points (8-18 FG, 7-13 3FG) last night at Dallas (12/18/12) after not reaching double-figure scoring in any of his prior 17 games.

Thaddeus Young recorded 17 points (7-12 FG), six rebounds and five assists tonight. He has now scored in double-figures in each of the last 16 games, which is the second-longest streak of his career.

Lavoy Allen notched 10 points (4-8 FG) and a team-high seven rebounds tonight. Allen now has scored 10-plus points seven times this season after doing so just four times as a rookie in 2011-12.

Evan Turner suffered a left ankle sprain tonight.