As the Houston Rockets were putting the finishing touches on a rout of the Bulls, James Harden took a baseball pass from Patrick Beverley and had a clear path to the basket. Instead, the MVP frontrunner took one dribble and flipped the ball to a streaking Clint Capela, who flushed it home.
It was a situation Harden found himself in much of Friday night. The man who has the ball in his hands more than any player in the league was tasked with plenty of decision making. And as he's done the entire year - in his first season playing point guard - Harden made all the right calls as the Rockets picked up a 115-94 road victory.
Harden didn't light up the box score against a Bulls defense limited to Jimmy Butler and Jimmy Butler only as potential stoppers. He wasn't able to match the 42 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists he posted in Houston's victory over the Bulls last month. And he was more methodical than flashy, carving his way through the Bulls defense for 19 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists, his 33rd double-double.
But after an ugly start in which he committed five turnovers in his first 13 minutes - and watched the undermanned Bulls take a surprising 13-point lead - Harden was as solid as he could have been. Though just about every Rocket contributed to it, Harden's pacing of the Houston offense allowed for seamless transition buckets, 3-pointers and open layups off pick-and-roll sets. The end result was an unimaginable 72-28 run spanning the end of the first quarter to the end of the third quarter.
In that span Harden 15 points, six rebounds, eight assists and was a +30. He also committed just one turnover in the final 20 minutes of action, and his 13 assists created 32 points for the Rockets.
"James and I have pretty good chemistry. I know when he wants me to come set a screen or when he’s going to isolate or go to the basket on his own," said Ryan Anderson, who led the Rockets with 21 points and six 3-pointers. "We’re pretty much ready and prepared to spread the court around him and give him space to work and distribute. And for us we just want to make the best decisions."
Harden's ability to know when the flow of the game calls for him and his 29.1 points per contest to take over, or when his league-leading 11.2 assists need to help others involved, was on full display.
Late in the second quarter, after Dwyane Wade converted a three-point play to give the Bulls a one-point lead, Harden buried a pair of triples on successive possesions, with the latter becoming a four-point play after he baited Michael Carter-Williams into a foul.
Harden stayed aggressive in the third quarter, but with the Bulls keying in on him he became D'Antoni's distributor. He handed out five assists in various manners. First he found Capela on a pick-and-roll for an alley-oop dunk. Twice Anderson popped out off screens and buried triples. Later Harden drove and kicked to a wide-open Trevor Ariza (19 points), and he finished the quarter with a dart to Nene at the foul line for a 17-foot jumper.
"That’s probably his thing that we talk more about is him staying right in the middle in the sense of how much you score and how much you help the team," D'Antoni said. "You can’t do both, and it’s a fine line of some days it’s too much team and some days it’s too much 1-on-1. So he’s trying to stay right on that road in the middle where that’s how we win."
Friday he was clearly a distributor, as a sub-par Bulls defense struggled to keep up. Harden's 19 points were the second fewest he had scored in a month, and he only made five trips to the free-throw line, far less than the 11.0 attempts he averages per game. He picked and choosed his spots to score, and there weren't too many high-pressure situations for him to make decisions on in the blowout.
But it was yet another opportunity for him to build his skills and grow as a point guard. D'Antoni opted to make Harden the primary ball handler and point guard when he took over this summer. He stressed to Harden the importance of not worrying about turnovers - Harden leads the league with 6.8 turnovers per game - because of how often the Rockets wanted the ball in his hands.
Harden's made good on that. His usage rate is second only to Russell Westbrook. He leads the league in both assists per game and passes per game, showing that while he's finding open shooters he's also keeping the offense moving.
"You don’t really know how difficult it is to be the point guard until you’re really in it," he said. "I don’t really worry about the turnovers. I just go out there and try to make the right play and get everyone involved and play my game."
It's working for the Rockets, who are comfortably sitting in the No. 3 spot in the West. Already touting wins over the two teams ahead of them in the standings in Golden State and San Antonio, there's a belief their NBA-record 3-point shooting could help propel them to the Finals for the first time in two decades.
Harden has become one of the game's best passers, but in reality it's more fair to say he's one of the best decision makers. D'Antonio admitted that Harden's innate talent has made the transition a smooth one, and on Friday night it resulted in their 45th victory of the season as the playoffs near.
"James is also a guy that can (pass) and know when the right time for him to score is, too," Anderson said. "We trust his decision making, and he's just a superior player. What he’s doing, I’ve never played with anybody like that. I don’t know that there’s been many guys like that."