Those who closed their Thanksgiving weekend at the Toyota Center on Saturday night were treated to a historic performance from James Harden, who finished the night with 60 points on just 24 shots in the Rockets 158-111 victory over the Hawks. After a (relative) scoring dip over the last four games, Harden erupted against the NBA's No. 26 defense on Saturday, proving once again he's among the greatest scorers in NBA history.
Atlanta had no answer for Harden, regardless of the scheme head coach Lloyd Pierce deployed. The Hawks began with a double-heavy defense on Harden early, leading to just six shot attempts in the first quarter. But the decision to double didn't slow Houston's attack.
"Like everything else he does, [tonight] was unbelievable," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "When they doubled [Harden] he made the right play, when they didn't he scored. ...I mean you get 60 points on 24 shots and that's pretty good. He was incredible, but he's like that on every night."
The Rockets rolled downhill with abandon on the 4-on-3 opportunities, barrelling into the lane for a string of layups or open threes. The Hawks relaxed their scheme in the second quarter, though not to much success. Harden combined for for 47 points in the second and third quarters, and he slid by whichever defender attempted to guard him on an island. Saturday marked Harden's 20th career 50-point game, and his 11th 50-point effort since last season. No other player has more than two.
"I was just being aggressive," Harden said postgame. "A couple minutes into they game they let me play 1-on-1, then they started to trap so I read what the defense was giving me. I was just trying to attack as much as possible."
Harden's dominance is creating a nightmare choice for defenses. Double Harden, and allow the Rockets to feast on threes and open layups. The problem is exacerbated when Houston goes small, allowing P.J. Tucker or Gary Clark to make plays in space as the screener. Don't like that option? Guard Harden 1-on-1, and a 50-point eruption is always in play. Harden lamented the gimmick defenses thrown at him after Houston's loss to the Clippers, but it's hard to blame an opposing coach. What other option does one have?
The ease at which Harden toasted the Hawks was truly jarring. He split double teams and buried arching floaters. He banged home a pair of 30-footers in the third quarter, paying no mind to the defenders lunging at his chest and lower body. Harden finished Saturday as the only player in NBA history to score 60 points on fewer than 25 shots. His efficiency is historically unparalleled.
"I think basketball fans are very unappreciative of [Harden’s] scoring," Rockets guard Austin Rivers said postgame. "My man has 60 and didn’t play the fourth quarter. Name me another player who can do that right now."
The Rockets advanced to 13–6 with Saturday's win, and while 19 games is a bit of a small sample, we should briefly step-back (apologies for the pun) and reflect on Harden's historic scoring tear. He is averaging 38.9 points per game after Saturday's victory, trailing only two Wilt Chamberlain years for the highest single-season scoring average in NBA history. Chamberlain was the premier scorer of his era, an unstoppable force regardless of scheme or opponent. James Harden's should be considered in a similar vein.
Up Next: at San Antonio on Tuesday
The Rockets will have another two day break before heading down to San Antonio for a date with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. It's been an uncharacteristic season for San Antonio, who entered Saturday night with the NBA's No. 25 defensive rating en route to a 7–13 record. The Spurs haven't missed the playoffs since 1996-97. Elimination after 82 games could bring significant changes in the Alamo City.
Tip-off from the AT&T Center is slated for 7:30 p.m. CT.