James Harden and Kyrie Irving both have a lot on their plates.
And during Thursday’s matchup in Houston between the Rockets and Celtics, the two showed just how important they are to their respective teams.
The Beard came out on a tear and went 6-for-9 from the field (5-for-8 from three) in the first quarter to help the home team jump out to a 35-24 advantage.
Over the last 10 games, the reigning MVP has done everything in his power to get the Rockets back on track from their rough start to the season. Houston has gone 8-2 during that stretch while Harden has eclipsed 30 points in all but one of those contests—a seven-point win over the Trail Blazers in which he finished with 29.
He’s put together four 40-point efforts in that span, including a 50-point triple double.
Even before Chris Paul went on the shelf with a hamstring injury, the Rockets needed Harden to start showing out. As the roster still tries to gel and see if it can recreate the magic of their record-setting 2017-18 season, Houston still needs to gain solid footing in the Western Conference standings.
Coming off a big win over the Thunder on Christmas, Thursday’s game in Houston was a chance for the Rockets to maintain the spark they created for themselves following a three-game losing streak earlier in the month.
And when Harden went cold in the middle of the game, missing 11 straight field goals at one point from the end of the first into the middle of the third, it opened the door for a Boston squad that is also looking to bounce back from a lackluster start to the season.
Which brings us to Uncle Drew.
With a championship and one of the most clutch shots in NBA history already under his belt, Irving has looked to step up as a leader even more this season.
The more comments he makes to the media about what the Celtics need to do if they want to win a title, the more it appears Irving wants distinguish himself as more than just a premier bucket-getter.
So when Boston had a shot to make a run after trailing by as many as 17, it was Irving who looked to close. The same Irving who is fresh off a 41-point tour de force that led the Celtics to an overtime win over the rival 76ers on Christmas.
Boston has had its own struggles with getting its roster to mesh after many thought they would steamroll through the regular season. But it wasn’t until Brad Stevens made some upheaval to his starting lineup and gave Irving more room to operate the offense that the Celtics started to look like the championship-contender everyone expected them to be.
And so in the middle of the third quarter, Harden and Irving went at it.
The two put their offensive moves on full display and as the TNT broadcast team of Marv Albert and Chris Webber noted, they had the fans in the Toyota Center standing as if it were an All-Star game or AAU showcase.
And then, with just fewer than two minutes remaining, they both checked out with the Rockets up 85-81.
When Irving returned to the game in the middle of his team shooting free throws, Boston was down 103-91. Harden came back seconds later with his squad up 11 points.
Whether it was the home crowd, Mike D’Antoni’s offensive scheme or just the faith in the Rockets that if they gave Harden a chance to close, they knew he would, something clicked for Houston while the two superstars were out.
Harden added 16 of his game-high 45 in the final quarter to propel the Rockets to the 127-113 win.
Irving had four points and three assists in the final frame as his team saw an opportunity slip away.
Harden tied his career-high with nine threes as he posted a casual 45 and six assists in the victory, while Irving went for 23 and 11 dimes on 7-for-13 shooting.
Each player will have plenty more times this season when their respective teams will look for him to recreate what happened in the third quarter Thursday. But in addition to filling up the stat sheet, they will need to make an impression on the game that helps their teams perform even when they head to the bench.
Lifting up a team to the top of the standings after a poor start is no easy task. And as Harden starts to put in the types performances that earned him the MVP last season, Irving is still figuring out the best ways to take over for a team that made an impressive playoff run with him on the sidelined injured.
Whether it’s filling up the stat sheet or finding the proper balance with the team so it can excel even when one of these guards is on the bench, Harden and Irving still have a lot of work to do to get their units where they want them to be.