In the wake of injuries to Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capella, James Harden has become basketball’s Atlas, with all the weight of the Houston Rockets‘ playoff hopes resting solely on his shoulders.
It’s been a big ask. But a central tenet to being one of the league’s most valuable players is answering the call when needed most, and Harden — the league’s reigning MVP — has done just that, with his most recent stretch of scoring standing out as a uniquely iconic string of performances in a career that’s been defined by being an elite scorer.
Here are some of the most impressive numbers from that run so far:
18 and counting
After dropping 58 points against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, Harden extended his streak of consecutive 30-point games to 18 — a run that has included four 40-point triple-doubles.
That puts his streak squarely ahead of Kobe Bryant, who had 16 such games in 2003, and it’s the longest streak of consecutive 30-point games since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976.
But maybe most impressively, it’s tied with Elgin Baylor’s 1961-62 streak for the fifth-longest scoring run of its type in all of professional basketball’s recorded history.
Harden will have a chance to claim sole possession of fifth place when the Rockets play the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, and fourth place (20 games, Wilt Chamberlain) next Wednesday against the New York Knicks. It’s even conceivable he pushes the run up to third place on the list (25 games, also Chamberlain).
But climbing all the way to first is, in a word, improbable. Chamberlain’s all-time record for consecutive 30-point games stretched an indelible and incomprehensible 65 games in 1961-62.
No number captures Harden’s singular importance to Houston’s offence as succinctly as this one.
In Harden’s last two games, he has scored 115 points — a season-high 58 on Wednesday against the Nets and 57 against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday. Scoring 57 and 58 points back-to-back is an impressive accomplishment in and of itself, but the total simply doesn’t do the number justice.
None of those 115 points were assisted. None. Zero. Not a single one of his 33 field goals over that span were directly set up by another Rockets player.
Over the last 20 seasons only three players have scored more than 50 unassisted points in a game: Allen Iverson and LeBron James in 2005-06, and most recently Andre Miller in 2009-10.
Not only is Harden the only one to have done it twice, he did it in back-to-back games — and his scoring totals in those games are higher than any other player’s on that list.
Unsurprisingly, scoring 55 or more points in consecutive games is a rare occurrence. In fact, before Harden did so this past week, the last time it happened, United States President John F. Kennedy was championing the dream of putting a man on the moon, Spiderman was making his debut appearance in a comic book, and the very first Wal-Mart store opened.
It’s been a while: 56 years, to be exact. Wilt Chamberlain was the last player to accomplish the feat, doing so in 1962.
The entire list of players who can say they’ve done it? Harden and Chamberlain, that’s it.
40 over 20
Over the course of his last 20 games, Harden is averaging 41.2 points, bringing his season-total up to a league-leading 35.4. He’s pulled it off in the most predictably Harden way possible, averaging an astonishing 15.3 three point attempts and 14.4 trips to the foul line per game.
But regardless if you find the method palatable or not, few people can say they’ve achieved a sustained run like this. Only Rick Barry (22 games), Bryant (23 games), and Baylor (33 games) have similar streaks of averaging 40 or more points.
Of course, none of those stand up next to Chamberlain and his make-believe run of 515 games averaging 40 points or more.
One better than The King
Thanks to this stretch, Harden now has 13 50-point games in his career — the most among all active players, one more than LeBron James.
Passing LeBron puts Harden in sole possession of sixth place on the all-time list, one game shy of fifth-place-Barry.
Atop that list is a trio of familiar names, two of which Harden has a reasonable chance to catch in his career. Bryant pulled off the 50-point performance 25 times, and Michael Jordan did it 31 times, and Chamberlain, well, he did it 118 times.
40 per cent and rising
Only twice in NBA history has a player used 40 per cent or more of their team’s possessions for a full season: Russell Westbrook, who hit 41.65 per cent in 2016-17 and, through the first half of this season, Harden.
Not even Kobe, a man whose play drew both praise and scorn for making sure the Lakers’ offence ran through him, ever topped a 40 per cent season-long usage rate. Jordan never did either, nor did Iverson, nor James.
Second place on the usage rate charts this season? Joel Embiid at 32.8 per cent.
Yet during his current 18-game streak Harden’s usage has, somehow, jumped even higher. It currently sits at 43.5 per cent.
That’s a staggering amount of offensive responsibility. And in a tight Western Conference playoff race — where one losing streak can send you from having home court advantage to a seat in the draft lottery — the Rockets will have to hope this run, and Harden’s ability to shoulder the load of their postseason hopes alone, can continue until Paul returns from injury.