The regularity with which Rockets guard James Harden executes the extraordinary should not render his feats mundane, but in truth they do. That, sometimes, is the burden of greatness.
When Houston, short-handed in the backcourt with Eric Gordon (knee) and Austin Rivers (illness) unavailable, needed Harden to shoulder a disproportionate load against the spry Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena, he answered the call. Again.
Harden produced his fourth 50-point game of the season, torching the Cavaliers for 55 points plus eight assists to carry the Rockets to a 116-110 victory in the opener of a two-game road trip that will conclude on Friday against the Orlando Magic.
There was a methodical element to how Harden dismantled Cleveland, which opted more often than not to eschew the double teams others have thrown at the two-time league scoring champion. Harden made 10 3-pointers, missed just 14 of his 34 shots, and scored with such relative ease that his point total seemed to come casually despite being anything but.
"I'm kind of used to it," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters of watching Harden put together such performances. "If it was the first time I'd be like, 'Oh wow, look at that.' But he's done it for -- this is my fourth year -- so he's done it for four years.
"The moment is big, he gets bigger. And he's incredible, no doubt."
The Rockets' inconsistency remains an issue, but Harden provides the stability they can rely upon. There has been some discussion of his 3-point shooting, with Harden making only 34.9 percent of his career-high 14 3-point attempts per game, but his overall shooting percentage (44.0) is in line with his average (44.3) over his previous seven seasons with Houston.
That his scoring prowess is akin to a metronome makes it far too easy for some to overlook what Harden is accomplishing on a game-by-game basis. That Harden has become both cavalier about his individual exploits and team-centric in his approach facilitates the disregard.
"We've got to find a way to sustain our great effort for four quarters," Harden said, referencing in part his 13-0 fourth-quarter individual scoring blitz that answered the Cavaliers' 24-0 run. "Obviously mistakes happen, but for the majority of the game, we've got to make sure that offensively we're moving the ball and we're getting the shots that we want. And defensively we're limiting them to one shot and rebounding the basketball."
The Magic had seemingly reversed course from their early-season doldrums by winning five of six games before suffering back-to-back losses, the second coming on Wednesday at home to the Los Angeles Lakers. But in the Eastern Conference, modest losing skids are rarely punitive, and Orlando entered Thursday in eighth place in the conference standings despite a sub-.500 mark.
Orlando continues to make its mark defensively, but even with admirable effort, execution was lacking against the Lakers. The Magic were without starters Nikola Vucevic (right ankle) and Markelle Fultz (illness), but the players' absences didn't contribute to the loss as much as the team's stubbornness.
For the Magic to thrive, they must adhere to their identifiable traits at this stage of the season.
"Even with those other two guys we're not that team," Magic coach Steve Clifford said of his club's margin for error each time out. "We've got to play with discipline. We have to know who we're playing against and we have to take their strengths away. That's our chance."
--Field Level Media
Harden leads Houston into Orlando, looking dominant as ever