THE HOUSTON ROCKETS hear the James Harden haters, the Twitter trolls and meme makers who’d rather nitpick the aesthetics of the reigning MVP’s game than appreciate his greatness. Some fans will focus solely on the fouls Harden draws, no matter how many buckets he gets. They’ll whine that he walks, no matter how many spectacular stepback 3-pointers he swishes.
They’ll say his iso-centric style simply isn’t fun to watch — or not title-friendly, as Kobe Bryant put it — no matter how much history he makes. “Man, just respect what he’s doing,” Chris Paul said, scoffing at the scrutiny Harden faces as he lights up the league with a prolific consistency that hasn’t been seen since Wilt Chamberlain. “Guys who play in this league know how hard that is to do that night in and night out. “If everybody else could do it, they would.” Yet Harden seems to draw more scorn than other all-time great scorers. He has to lead the league in jabs from opponent’s announcing teams. His jerseys dot the crowds in road cities, but not nearly to the extent of, say, Stephen Curry, and he gets booed a bunch — such as for the crime of taking his time to size up his defender on an early touch in Denver last week. Not every Harden performance is pretty, and you can point to his 37-point, 32-shot night in last week’s self-proclaimed “terrible” loss to the short-handed New Orleans Pelicans as a prime example. Hey, not every Picasso painting was a masterpiece. But there has been a lot of artistry during Harden’s ridiculous run that included averaging 43.6 points per game in January, the most by any player in a month other than, again, Chamberlain. And there have been a whole lot of highlights, such as the potential signature moment of his second straight MVP campaign: that last-second pull-up Harden launched from a few feet behind the 3-point line with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson draped all over him to hush the Oracle Arena crowd and beat the Warriors in OT. From the choreographed dance moves at the 3-point line to heaving pinpoint passes from half court, The Beard is putting on a historic show. Are you not entertained? “That’s fine, you don’t have to like watching me play,” Harden told ESPN. “But I know a lot of people that do.” THE DISDAIN FOR his new teammate’s game puzzles Austin Rivers. He grew up in a generation that lionized legendary isolation scorers like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. And almost every time he scrolls through his Instagram feed, he sees the buzz that flashy ballhandling and deep 3s create. “I’m surprised that people don’t like watching him play,” said Rivers, who signed with the Rockets early in Harden’s streak of 30-plus-point performances that stands at 28 straight games entering Saturday’s ABC primetime matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “We live in a day and age where everybody likes one-on-one moves, crossovers — I mean, you would think people would love watching him.” Harden has an argument that he’s the best one-on-one player ever to bounce a ball. Heck, he recently scored 302 consecutive points without being assisted, a run that included 57-, 58- and 61-point nights.
Harden has a handle good enough to go viral at any moment, as Wesley Johnson learned the hard way last season, landing on the Staples Center floor and in Internet infamy on an especially sick stepback last season. Johnson was the butt of a lot of jokes during and after the Rockets’ win over the LA Clippers that night, but he was also a sympathetic figure. To be on an island against Harden is to be at the mercy of a man who is maybe the most versatile one-on-one creator the league has ever seen. “It’s a combination of power and grace that not many people possess,” said Rockets CEO Tad Brown, who occasionally takes to Twitter to fire back at what he considers unfair shots at Harden. “It’s like he’s got his own dance that nobody else knows the steps to, and if ultimately somebody figures it out, he’s strong enough to just go through them. He’s just nearly impossible to cover.” Harden scores in so many ways — the deep stepback, the wide array of crafty and/or powerful finishes off of drives and, of course, by earning a lot of trips to the line — but it’s those dance steps that the coaches who help him hone his craft love. “What people miss about the beauty of James’ game is his feet,” said John Lucas, the Rockets’ director of player development. “Look how big James is! I mean, he’s 235 [pounds]. James would have been a great tight end. Those feet are phenomenal. Stop and start, he’s just pop, pop, bam! “That’s the beauty. James’ feet are as pretty as Steph Curry’s 3s.” Irv Roland, Houston’s player development coach who works out Harden daily and travels with him during the summer, declares likewise that The Beard “has the best feet in the NBA.” “He has the ability to start and stop and lull defenders to sleep with his handle,” Roland said. “Next thing you know, he’s into his stepback. Most people can’t play at that pace. He has that gift.” Harden has a version of the Euro step for every country in that continent, enabled by his ability to change gears and direction so smoothly. (“He has that slow-down speed like he’s a Rolls Royce,” Suns TV analyst Eddie Johnson — who did his share of hating — cooed after a transition finger roll during Harden’s 44-point performance Monday.) But it’s that stepback that separates Harden from every other off-dribble creator. Teammates shake their heads at Harden’s ability to consistently create — much less make — so many stepback 3s, darting backward and side to side at any angle. “You know that 3’s coming,” Rivers said, “and he still figures out ways to get it.” It helps to have such a high, lefty release — “You’d think he was 6-9,” Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford said before Harden dropped 40 in a Rockets win — and he uses his forearm and shoulder like a tight end at the top of a route to create a little space. But that’s a bad shot, a bail-out move, for the vast majority of NBA players. But it’s Harden’s go-to, his version of Kareem’s skyhook, a shot extremely difficult to replicate and ruthlessly efficient. “Just the shot-making ability, no one’s ever seen it,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It’s like, ‘Wow.'” According to NBA.com/stats, Harden has attempted 405 stepback 3s, more than three times as many as any other player. He has made 40 percent — an effective field goal percentage of 60 — on shots that would get most players benched. “He’s putting the ball on the floor six, seven times before he creates three feet of space,” Rockets swingman Gerald Green said. “Stepback, 35-foot jumper and-1s. Those are daggers!
“Those plays you really can’t scout for. You can’t scout for somebody putting the ball between his legs five, six, seven times and stepping back and shooting a jumper. You can’t guard that. It’s unguardable.” FOR ALL THE bellyaching about Harden hogging the ball, perhaps the prettiest part of his game is his passing. Lucas goes so far as to say Harden is “like Magic Johnson” when it comes to court vision and creative deliveries. The numbers are nice, as Harden ranks among the NBA’s top five in assists for the third straight season, leading the league with 11.2 per game in 2016-17. But as is the case with the stepback 3s, the entertainment in Harden’s passing is often due to the degree of difficulty. “The passes through the legs, behind-the-back passes through the legs, no-looks through tight seams — those are tough passes to make,” said Green, who occasionally will be open on the 3-point line and wonder whether Harden can see him through all the traffic, only to have the ball arrive on target a second later. “He’s doing that every game. “It’s amazing, because most guys that have the ability to score that great, I don’t remember them being that great of a passer. Don’t get me wrong, Kobe was good passer, Jordan was a good passer. But James is just on a whole nother level passing. Besides LeBron, I don’t really know any [all-time great scorers] who can pass it like that.” Harden generates good looks by the bunches for Green and the rest of the Rockets’ shooters, but big men tend to be on the business end of his best passing highlights. Center Clint Capela, whose quick springs and suction-cup hands make him a terrific target, finished 147 times off Harden dimes this season before being sidelined by a right thumb injury last month. That includes 65 alley-oops, according to NBA.com/stats, a lot of which are late lobs after Harden drives into the teeth of the defense before dishing. Harden has already fed Kenneth Faried, the fill-in starting center the Rockets scooped up in the buyout market for 17 buckets in nine games. And Faried admits that he tries to finish with some flair after a particularly pretty pass from Harden, knowing that it’ll be a highlight. “I gotta go over top of somebody or dunk it just so, hey, they can see the pass and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, and he finished it hot!’ and they get real hype,” Faried said with a smile. “Gotta make sure it looked good. Make sure it’s not just the pass, but, ‘He finished it with such authority!’ Gotta make sure.” Harden often doesn’t even cross midcourt before delivering his best passes, putting the ball over the defense into tiny windows to Capela, like a quarterback tossing a go route to a wide receiver.
He’ll even drop the occasional 45-foot, no-look dime in traffic. “He throws a lot of those over-the-top passes to Clint where you’re like” — Paul said, pausing to grunt and wince — “and then they get there.” D’Antoni jokes that you have to have a big contract — and the security that comes with it — to attempt some of the passes that Harden does on a regular basis. “Oh, he’s got some gonads,” D’Antoni said. “But it’s skill and crazy vision and the moxie to do it.” SO HARDEN PUTS up PlayStation numbers with a blend of handling the rock like a yo-yo, ridiculous range and risk-taking. But all he does is draw fouls!!! It’s a narrative that annoys many within the Houston organization. From teammates to the front office, it isn’t hard to find folks eager to defend the honor of Harden’s game, which happens often without prompting. Harden has shown glimpses of frustration during a few media sessions, including after the OT win over the Warriors, when he said: “[People] talk too much about my fouls and not actually the greatness of what I’m really doing out there on the court. That’s what we need to focus on.” He has also openly declared that he plans to repeat as MVP, a subject he declined to discuss throughout last season. Harden, however, prefers to play it cool when it comes to his critics. “I appreciate the haters,” Harden told ESPN. “They motivate me to be better than I was the year before. That’s what it’s about. You’re always going to have somebody who doesn’t like what you do or downplays what you do or can’t relate to you. Which is fine. Nothing against them, but that’s a part of life. “I don’t have nothing to prove to anybody. When you know you’re comfortable within your own self, and you go out there and be yourself every single night and every single day, that’s pretty cool.” Yeah, it’s pretty cool to score at clips that demand your name be mentioned with the greatest players in the history of the game. “You can say what you want to say — James Harden is without a doubt the complete offensive machine,” says Rockets TV analyst Calvin Murphy, who held the franchise’s single-game scoring record of 57 points before Harden broke it a few times. “I don’t know why that’s not fun,” D’Antoni said. “I enjoy it, that’s for sure.”