Presented an opportunity to take a shot at the teams that have utilized exotic defensive sets designed to stifle his scoring rampages, Houston Rockets guard James Harden did against the Orlando Magic on Friday what he accomplished in his previous game against the Cleveland Cavaliers: He rarely missed.
Two nights after pouring in 55 points on 20-for-34 shooting in Cleveland, Harden torched Orlando for 54 points while making 19 of 31 attempts. Harden matched the franchise record of 10 3-pointers against the Cavaliers and bested that effort percentage-wise on Friday in Orlando, finishing 10 of 15 from behind the arc in the Rockets' 130-107 runaway win.
Harden, who connected on 20 of 33 3-pointers during the brief two-game road trip, will look to remain scorching hot when the Rockets host the Detroit Pistons on Saturday at Toyota Center.
"I'm finally getting regular defensive coverage," Harden said when asked to explain his otherworldly perimeter shooting during the roadie. "These past other games have been box-and-1s, triple teams, double teams. It feels good to have somebody (defend) one-on-one."
Like the Cavaliers, Orlando appeared reluctant to double-team Harden and force the ball out of his hands, waiting until the second half to finally start sending a second defender his direction. By then, Harden was already in a rhythm, having posted 25 points prior to the break, including 18 in the second period alone. The pressure Orlando applied even with a help defender was token at best, as Harden tallied 13 points in the third period before adding 16 more in the final quarter.
At 39.3 points per game, Harden currently owns the third-best single-season scoring average in NBA history, bested only by Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 (50.4) and 1962-63 (44.8).
"It's unbelievable," said Rockets reserve guard Ben McLemore, who benefited from the gravity Harden created and shot 6 of 7 on 3s for 18 points. "I was telling him on the bench, being an opposing (player) and playing against you and being able to play with you and seeing this stuff and what you do each and every night is amazing. Obviously, he's a Hall of Famer in the future."
Harden now becomes the Pistons' problem, a cruel bit of timing considering the blistering Detroit suffered at the hands of Dallas Mavericks point forward Luka Doncic on Thursday in Mexico City.
Doncic posted a 40-point triple-double (41 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) in leading the Mavericks to a 122-111 win, the Pistons' first loss following a stretch of four wins in five games.
Perhaps most foreboding for Detroit in advance of Saturday was the assessment of Pistons coach Dwane Casey in the aftermath of the loss to Dallas. Teams have opted to aggressively double-team Harden to not only prevent his scoring binges, but to also limit his overall impact on the game offensively. Harden is a deft passer and facilitator, and Doncic is cut in a similar mold.
That Detroit struggled so mightily preventing Doncic from controlling the game is ominous given the nightmare Harden can pose for opposing defenses.
"Defensively, I thought we missed a lot of rotations," Casey said. "We were trying to get the ball out of Doncic's hands, which is very difficult to do. He sees the whole floor and I thought he picked us apart."
--Field Level Media
Harden becomes Pistons' headache in Houston