The step-back 3, the defense-breaking dimes, the relentless march to the free throw line. All of it was there for Harden, who appeared unfazed by the recent noise surrounding him and his revamped franchise.
It caught Portland off guard. Maybe they weren’t expecting Harden and Houston’s season debut — initially postponed after positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing protocols — to be so seamless. Several Rockets — including John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins — remained unavailable while under quarantine, leaving just nine active players to contend with a much deeper Blazers team.
Portland fell behind by as many as 16 in the second quarter. Harden was humming. Houston’s big free agent signing, Christian Wood, was dunking all over the Blazers’ finally healthy frontline. Jae’Sean Tate — last seen playing for the Sydney Kings of Australia’s National Basketball League — scored 11 points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting in the first half.
Surely the Blazers needed Damian Lillard to, at least, duplicate his 21 first-half points.
It didn’t happen. Lillard went unusually cold, shooting just 3-for-12 in the second half. He even missed the potential game-winner in regulation, a one-on-one leaner over PJ Tucker. With Harden scorching, what would the Blazers do without Dame Time?
Turn the clock to McCollum’s Meridian.
For each of Harden’s absurd step-back triples, the other half of Portland’s high-scoring backcourt answered with a 3 of his own. And another. And another.
McCollum drilled a career-high nine of them, including the game-winning bomb with 6.3 seconds remaining in overtime to give Portland a thrilling 128-126 victory. His 44 points canceled out Harden’s own 44, as well as Houston’s absurdly shorthanded bid for a road win at Portland.
“I know, based on some of the things we’re going through right now offensively and defensively, we have to play well,” McCollum said afterward. We have to be efficient, I need to make threes, I need to take threes, just try to be aggressive.”Harden and McCollum each score 44 points in a regular-season classic.
The extremely early candidate for the game of the year punctuated the gorge-like difference between each team’s contending philosophy. Portland has stayed the course behind its star backcourt for more than seven years, refusing to break up the Lillard-McCollum tandem. They are synonymous with Portland, all but assured of lofty places in franchise record books and memories.
Houston, on the other hand, is attempting a fourth co-star audition alongside Harden, one that won’t be televised until Wall is cleared to return. Even when he does, there is no guarantee the former No. 1 pick will be the All-Star package of playmaking athleticism he once was (preseason signs were encouraging). Can Wall be the answer where Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook left only more questions?
Even if Wall does make a successful on-court return, the question of Harden’s desire to see through its potential remains. Most recent reports have him extending his list of preferred destinations rather than his time in Houston. His late arrival to Rockets camp intensified that uncertainty.
Heading into Saturday’s game, Harden answered pregame questions about his delayed season debut with a short, pre-scripted litany.
“Tonight, I got a great opportunity,” Harden said. “Starting my 12th year in this league. I’m excited for it.”
Another question about recent events. Same answer.
“Year 12 for me,” Harden deadpanned. “I’m excited to be out here playing. You never want to take playing basketball for granted. I’m excited for tonight’s game.”
All of that could have taken at least a temporary backseat had Saturday’s headline been “Harden returns, scores 44 in Rockets’ opener.” Instead, it was McCollum’s 44 that stole the victory and relief from Houston’s complicated start to the 2020-21 campaign.Harden wasted no time re-acclimating himself after a delayed return.
There is little time to dwell on it. Houston faces the formidable Nuggets on Monday (9 ET, League Pass) again without Wall, Cousins and others due to mandated quarantines. The Blazers travel to face the defending champion Lakers later that same night (10 ET, NBA TV). Portland will enter its game secure in who they are and will be for the foreseeable future.
The Rockets? They’ll wait at least long enough to see what their full squad looks like before deciding if Houston has a problem. Three regular starters — Harden, PJ Tucker and Christian Wood — logged more than 40 minutes apiece. Tate, David Nwaba and Danuel House combined for more than 100 minutes.
“For those guys to come in and play the minutes they did against a quality team and be right there at the end, I’m proud of them,” said first-year Rockets head coach Stephen Silas. “I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the way they fought.”
As for Harden, he described his 44-point, 17-assist return as casually as he made it.
“I didn’t surprise myself at all,” Harden said postgame. “I know what I’m capable of.”
What nobody knows is what Harden or the Rockets will do next.