It was probably the biggest story of the first half of the NBA season – Houston’s James Harden and his streak of five straight 40-point games and then, his ongoing run of 31 straight 30-point games.
And the most interesting facet of that 40-point streak was that almost none of his baskets came after an assist from a teammate.
The man was playing one-on-one against the whole league for weeks and making it work:
A while back, we had the opportunity after a practice to talk with Portland Coach Terry Stotts and the Trail Blazers’ two highest scorers, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, about Harden’s streak and the idea of basically doing it with one-on-one play -- virtually monopolizing the ball.
Of course, the Rockets were without injured starters Chris Paul and Clint Capela much of that time, too. And there was the feeling by many that Harden’s heroics were the only way Houston could win.
“It’s an amazing stat,” Stotts said. “To have that many points unassisted is obviously an indication of how they’re playing and how they need to play at this point. And it’s a case of good a player he is and how good of a one-on-one player he is.”
Lillard is a big scorer and appreciates the difficulty of scoring at that level for an extended period of time.
“You’ve got to respect it for what he is doing,” Lillard said. “It takes a great player to accomplish what he is doing. To have 20 points in an NBA game is an accomplishment… but to average over 40 or 30, that is crazy.”
McCollum is a terrific one-on-one player himself and knows how hard it is to carry the burden that Harden has carried.
“That’s a skill,” McCollum said. “That’s a skill to be able to create quality shots, create space. And a unique skill to do it essentially every possession.
“He gets to that spot before anybody else. You’ve got to be in elite shape to dribble the ball as much as he does, come off screens, play at the top of the lane and still get step-backs. He’s special.”
But what about his teammates? A lot of them are relegated to standing around, watching him go one-on-one.
“Depends on the position you play,” McCollum said with a smile. “It would be tough. You have to be able to shoot, obviously. Be able to go a lot of possessions without touching the ball, because he handles the ball and facilitates – decides who scores and when they score.”
But, says McCollum, there’s another side to the coin.
“You also get one-on-one coverage, you have a lot of opportunities to attack angles and gaps because of the amount of attention he draws. He attracts double-teams and triple-teams. Everybody is always aware of where he’s at on the court.
“There’s positives and negatives to playing with everybody but with anybody, but as an NBA player you can figure it out – figure out how to be productive.”
Stotts approached the question of Harden’s teammates from a coach’s point of view.
“The biggest thing is everybody accepts their role and understands that with Chris Paul out and Capela out, that’s what they have to do to win games,” Stotts said. “I’m sure they’re fine with it.”
Lillard, a player who takes seriously his role with the Trail Blazers as the one responsible for getting his teammates going, had some concern about Houston’s “other” players.
“The other side of it is the people who are playing with him,” Lillard said. “Those are the people you have to ask. When it’s unassisted, the ball is in his hands all the time. NBA players, you know they want to shoot, they want to have the ball and they want to have a chance.
“You have to respect what’s he’s doing. You can’t take nothing away from him – especially if his teammates are OK with it and they’re winning games.”
A question that begged to be asked is if there are any other NBA players – given the green light to continually go one-on-one for entire games – who could duplicate Harden’s feats.
“Kevin Durant – for sure,” Lillard said. “If KD played that exact same way I think he’d do the exact same thing.”
McCollum chuckled when asked the question.
“Like that?” he asked. “I think I can score a lot but 50 or 60? You’ve got to be elite. There are guys out there who could be productive, but I don’t know if they could be as good as James Harden. He’s very elite in his own right.
“I think there’s some guys out there who can score a lot of points in that situation.”
What about Durant?
“He could do that on any team … if he wanted to.” McCollum said.
Stotts took his time with his answer about other players being able to hamdle that load Harden is carrying.
“Umm, there are some great players,” he said. “I’d say probably. I’m not going to name names but there are players out there – I don’t know if they’d be that efficient –- but there are players, maybe a handful of players, who’d like to try to see if they could.”
I think we all could agree with that. How about Durant’s chances?
“Durant?” Stotts said. “I think it would have to be a perimeter player. Durant, Steph -- if he got on a roll -- the thing is to be able to do it every night.
“LeBron is probably in that category. Probably some other guys as well. The thing about what James (Harden) is doing is that he’s doing it every night. It’s not a one-night phenomenon.”
And, as far as the 30-point streak is concerned, it’s still climbing.