James Harden's resume as a top-five player in this league is very strong. This year will mark the third year in a row he's led the league in scoring, a feat very few have accomplished before him. He has an MVP trophy. He has put up ridiculous statistics of all kinds, from 60-point games to triple-doubles left and right. Yet, time after time, Harden has come up short in the playoffs.
There are plenty of reasons why. He isn't gifted whistles like in the regular season and has to scratch and claw for the plentiful amount of free throw attempts he usually enjoys. But the main reason Harden has come up short down the stretch is relatively simple, but still very impactful: he gets tired. The man has posted historic usage rates in every season since Mike D'Antoni thought, "Maybe we should just give the ball to the best scorer in the league and get out of the way." Harden shoulders the load like no other player for the Rockets, and the cons of that strategy show itself late in the season. Harden simply gets worn down. It's not exclusive to him, but seems to impact his game more than others.
But this year, everything is different. Obviously. Harden, along with the rest of his NBA brethren, just had a four-month break before the 2020 playoffs. It seemed Harden took the time to shed some weight, although now that he's in uniform there isn't a substantial difference. He looked pretty good in scrimmages, but last night's matchup vs. the Mavericks really hammered home just how damn good Harden can be when he's feeling himself. And if this is the Harden we get to enjoy over the next few months in the playoffs, opposing defenses should be having nightmares.
Harden had 23 points on six of six shooting last night. In the first quarter. He finished with 49 points in an overtime battle with Luka Doncic, shooting 14-20 from the floor and hitting 18 of 21 free throw attempts. It was the essential James Harden game, with plenty of drives to the rack and absurd step-back three-pointers that even the best defenders in the world can do nothing about. If anything, Harden being fully rested and raring to go for the playoffs this year will be a referendum on his style of play. Can Houston go the distance playing Harden iso-ball as their central form of offense? They haven't in the past, at least in part because of the aforementioned toll doing that for an entire season takes on Harden. All things are now equal, and no Harden fan can point to wear-and-tear as their downfall now.
Either way, Harden clearly hasn't missed a beat. Putting up 49 in his first real game since March ain't nothin' to sneeze at. We will now see what a motivated, rested Harden can do-- and it will be terrifying, but incredible to view.