About Last Night

About Last Night: Harden's 61-point hammer

Rockets' superstar outdoes himself, Russell nails Lakers' coffin

It happened earlier than usual on Friday night. Text messages and social media posts began flying from fan to fan at roughly 8:30 p.m. ET.

“Harden’s hot. He’s got 27.”

By this point, it was already the middle of the NBA evening. Many assumed it was first-half news, to which the reply couldn’t type itself fast enough.

“No, no… in the first quarter.”

It was true. James Harden had already burned the previously scorching Spurs for 27 points in the game’s first 12 minutes. Yet even as he scored “just” 10 and nine points in the second and third quarters, respectively, the Spurs’ collective seemed on the verge of overcoming Houston’s Kia MVP candidate.

Then Harden buckled in for one more surge, a fourth-quarter push that included this back-breaking banker to put Houston up three after they trailed by as many as 19 in the second half.

Behind Harden’s 61 points, Houston pulled away for the 111-105 win.

Like his signature step-back 3-pointer, that game-swinging banker is a terrible shot for anyone but Harden, just as his load distribution would seem terrible for any team but Houston. His usage rating against the Spurs was 53.7 percent — the fourth time he’s exceeded 50 percent in 2018-19. Klay Thompson is the only other player to shoulder more than 50 percent usage in a game this season.

That, in a nutshell, will be Harden’s MVP case to voters in just three short weeks. He is the Rockets’ Atlas, only he’s scoring 60-plus with the big ball instead of merely carrying it. Friday’s 61-point performance (combined with his 57-point special on Wednesday) punctuated that image, one supported by a stream of impressive stats, facts and short lists. Among them:

  • Harden is now the first player to score 50-plus in back-to-back games twice in the same season since Wilt Chamberlain
  • Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Chamberlain are the only players in NBA history to match or exceed Harden’s 118 total points in a two-game span
  • Harden also joins Jordan, Bryant and Chamberlain as the only players with multiple 60-point games in a season
  • Harden passed Joe Johnson for 10th all-time in made 3s
  • His 61 points ties 1) his own career-high and 2) Houston’s franchise record for points in a game
  • Harden’s 61 points were the most ever scored against the Spurs

Everyone will take notice, if for different reasons. Harden supporters and detractors will scream point and counterpoint to each other while voters scramble to find the truth beneath the noise. The Bucks felt compelled to remind the NBA world of their own MVP candidate just minutes after Houston’s win:

Until the votes are cast and their results made, simply marveling over Harden’s historic shot-making will have to be enough.

Cause and effect

Entering Friday’s action, four teams were tied in the Western Conference playoff picture, while the bottom of the East was still very much up for grabs. Here’s a brief look at what happened and the ripple-effect in the standings:

Magic 123, Grizzlies 119

Orlando avoided catastrophe with a late-game comeback before eking out the win in OT. A four-game winning streak has the Magic just a half-game out of the eighth and final playoff spot out East.

Clippers 110, Cavaliers 108

L.A.’s playoff-bound team also avoided embarrassment, overcoming a slow first-half to ultimately edge the league’s third-worst team. Combined with the Spurs’ loss to Houston, the win was enough to push the Clippers to a tie for fifth with Oklahoma City.

Nuggets 111, Knicks 93

By quickly dispatching the lottery-bound Knicks, Denver re-established a tie for first with Golden State. The Nuggets have lost two of three to the Warriors this season making their April 2 meeting a must-win for tiebreaker purposes.

Thunder 116, Raptors 109

Oklahoma City snapped its four-game skid by erasing a 13-point, third-quarter deficit and somehow beating the Raptors in Toronto. The incredible effort saw OKC remain in a tie for fifth, except now they share the same record (43-30) with only one team (the Clippers) instead of three.

The Raptors, meanwhile, saw their odds of overtaking first-place Milwaukee drop significantly. Toronto trails the Bucks by three full games with just nine remaining.

Rockets 111, Spurs 105

Harden’s eruption gave Houston a precious game’s worth of breathing room in third place, just ahead of Portland. The outcome was felt further down the same West standings, where San Antonio fell to eighth place now that they own one more loss than the seventh-place Jazz.

Bucks 116, Heat 87

Milwaukee is in the driver’s seat for first place out East, while the Heat’s cushion for eighth is now a razor-thin half-game over Orlando.

Nets 111, Lakers 106

Brooklyn now holds a healthy two-game lead over Miami for the seventh spot and is just a half-game back of idle Detroit for sixth place. As for the Lakers…

Russell’s revenge

D’Angelo Russell’s NBA turnaround came full circle on Friday when Brooklyn visited the franchise that made him one of their three consecutive No. 2 overall picks — and the only one the Lakers decided not to keep.

Now fully transformed from Laker outcast to Nets All-Star, Russell took advantage of the ultimate opportunity: the chance to officially eliminate his former team from playoff contention. The 6-foot-3 guard didn’t let the occasion pass him by, putting up 21 points and 13 assists as Brooklyn hammered the final nail into L.A.’s lottery coffin.

JaVale McShaq

Speaking of career arcs, none might be stranger than that of JaVale McGee. The 7-foot-1 big man went from absurdly talented first-round pick to a well-paid starter to NBA outcast before curving back to meaningful role player over the last three seasons.

Now with the Lakers, the former Shaqtin’ A Fool MVP put up Shaq-like numbers against the Nets: 33 points, 20 rebounds and six blocks. We could include any number of his 15 field goals to illustrate how he dominated inside, but perhaps his shot chart will give you a better idea.

By the end of the night, McGee had become the first Laker to put up a 30-point, 20-rebound, five-block game since… you guessed it, Shaquille O’Neal. The duo joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only Lakers ever to record a 30-20-5.

That’s not it

If you try and fail to take a charge on Giannis Antetokounmpo, he will let you know about it.

Remember your roots

March is a defining month for college basketball, and the moments therein live on long after the stars move onto the pros. Dwyane Wade is no exception, and the Heat’s visit to Milwaukee provided the perfect timing and location to remember his electric time at Marquette.