HOUSTON — James Harden had the audacity to act normal Wednesday night. He just came out of the shower, got dressed, gave his beard a good once over with his palm and acted like he wasn’t walking away from a building he just burned to the ground.
“That’s how I play,” he said after Houston’s 122-119 win over Oklahoma City. “If you watch, all 50 games that’s how I play.”
Harden scored a career-high 46 points on 19 shots to lead the Rockets (30-26) from 14 points down to beat the Thunder (39-15), his former team. He went 14 of 19 from the field, 7 of 8 from the 3-point line and 11 of 12 from the foul line, while grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out six assists over 44 minutes. He also made a half-court shot at the end of the third quarter.
“Today I had a pretty good game,” Harden said.
Teammates were equally useless in explaining it all.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Jeremy Lin said.
It took Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who happens to be in the Hall of Fame, to season the night with any sort of perspective.
“He’s a phenomenal offensive force,” McHale said of Harden. “I think he’s almost unguardable off the catch. His first step is so deceptively fast and strong and he changes direction. When he plays off the catch I just think he’s absolutely as good as it gets. … James really has no offensive weaknesses.”
According to Harden there was no connection to his having played in his first All-Star Game last Sunday and (perhaps) entering the realm of superstardom on Wednesday. He said he had spent so much of All-Star weekend nursing a sore ankle that he was actually a little concerned about being rusty.
“I really didn’t get a lot of work in because of my ankle,” he said. “I had to make sure I was doing the right things, eating the right things.”
It sounds almost ridiculous to say it was a team effort, but Houston needed everybody in a figurative and literal sense. Twenty minutes before tip, the Rockets learned their front office had traded four players — Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Toney Douglas and Cole Aldrich, — meaning every Rocket who was in uniform Wednesday night played at least five minutes.
That was the literal part.
The figurative usage was that even with one of the performances of the year from Harden, beating the Thunder was still a mighty feat. Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha scored 28 apiece, and Kevin Durant had a triple-double (16 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists). Oklahoma City shot 48 percent from the field, 39 percent from the 3-point line and went 24 of 27 at the free-throw line.
Houston’s strategy against Durant was going to leave other OKC shooters open in the corners. This was something McHale decided he was willing to live with. For all NBA teams, he said, there are those opponents you feel you match up well against, and then there are others that, as he put it, are “like ugh.”
“They’re one of those ‘ugh’ teams,” McHale said of the Thunder.
For about 44 minutes, it appeared Houston was just going to die by that strategy. The Rockets, in particular Chandler Parsons, had done a nice job on Durant — he went 4-for-13 – but if Sefolosha is going to make six 3s, the Rockets are going to be grounded most of the time.
“For a while, I just thought, ‘Well, they beat our scheme,'” McHale said.
Things grew especially bad for Houston when Parsons left the game with a sprained ankle late in the third quarter. When he returned with 6:29 left in the fourth, the Rockets were down 11.
But with 4:24 to go, Harden scored a dunk to cut the deficit to eight. Then Westbrook turned it over and Harden got an and-one play to make it five, then a driving layup to trim OKC’s lead to three with 3:38 to play — It was Harden’s 39th point.
The sellout crowd at Toyota Center realized it was witnessing something extraordinary. The sound in the building turned sharp and loud, like when you turn a blender on high speed.
Durant missed a 17-footer and Houston quickly got the ball to Harden. Because of a switch, he ended up with center Serge Ibaka, his old teammate, guarding him on the left wing.
Here came the Harden crossovers. Left, right, left, right, forward back. Bang, tie game, 111-111.
“We tried a few players on (Harden),” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “In the fourth quarter, nothing seemed to work.”
Harden blocked Westbrook on the other end and Lin hit a 3. Then Harden put Houston up five with a long jumper. With 49 seconds left, Harden drove the lane, OKC’s defense collapsed and he kicked it to Parsons, who skipped it to Lin for another 3 and a six-point lead.
Westbrook responded with a 3, but that’s all Oklahoma City had left.
“I just told the guys who were on the court,” Harden said, “that we’ve got to do whatever it takes.”