While the fans were paying homage to Bryant, a young man who idolized him while growing up in L.A. continued to show why he’s an elite player.
Harden doesn’t play with an angry passion like his former teammate Russell Westbrook or the sharp outside shooting touch of Stephen Curry. His game is one of grit. He scores on drives, contact and step-back jumpers. His playmaking abilities get lost sometimes, thanks to his will to score from different places on the floor.
The biggest criticism of Harden is defense -- and even that is getting better.
There is no mistaking the fantastic nature of his game. On a night when Bryant displayed flashes of his old self, it was Harden who reminded the fans in his building to not forget about his outstanding abilities.
Even Bryant was impressed.
“He looks like he’s found his groove, and I’ve always liked him as a player, even when he was in college,” Bryant said. “Now here in the pros, he’s developed his midrange game, so now he can shoot the 3, he can get to the basket, he’s got the pullup, and he looked terrific.”
On Saturday morning, Harden talked about looking up to Bryant as a kid growing up in Los Angeles. Harden said he was 7 when Bryant debuted for the Lakers in 1996. Now, as a professional, Harden watched as the fans gave Bryant loud ovations and chanted his name.
After it was over, Bryant shared a long embrace with Harden, the young, bearded scorer who is trying to take over the game now.
Harden didn’t even mind the fans who were chanting ‘Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.”
“Nah, that’s a legend,” he said. “It’s his last year out. I was cheering his name too. It’s once in a lifetime chance you’re going to see this guy play again. I haven’t had the chance to see Michael [Jordan] play in person, but he’s our modern Michael, and for him, for this to be his last year, he did what he did.”
Harden will see Bryant three more times, and he will cherish every moment.
You could tell Harden had Bryant on the brain by his footwear at the start of the game. He wore Adidas Crazy 1, which was Bryant’s first shoe coming out of high school.
Bryant, a Nike man now, was touched.
“I love James,” he said. “As a die-hard Nike athlete, that’s all I will say about that question.”
Harden wants to take over the game more than ever. He was second in the MVP voting to Curry last season, but after an offseason filled with rest, both he and his team (0-3) started the season poorly.
Now, it seems like years since Harden was fighting with his game. Since the slow start, he is second in the league in scoring, tops in free throws made and attempted, and back to where he belongs -- among the elite players in basketball.
On Saturday, Harden showed somebody he looked up to as a kid that he can play a little bit too.
Harden scored on drives and drew fouls when defenders grabbed his arm like was he a running back grinding through the hole. He made his jumpers, went 3-of-5 from 3 and did the little things with steals (3) and assists (3). More importantly, his plus-minus was plus-6.
“He came out was very aggressive,” interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “It was in the flow, it was in what we were trying to execute, it was to the basket, it was jump shots, it was all those things. I think he’s growing into something special. The slow start, some people would have given in and stopped working, but he kept working, kept developing.”
The Rockets are back to .500 and begin a week-long road trip with hopes of moving up in the West, while Golden State and San Antonio climb past everybody else.
Harden said he wasn’t worried about the slow start by him or the team because, like his idol, you keep playing. You keep fighting. You don’t worry about things.
“We had a really good start. Throughout the game our defense really picked up,” Harden said. “We got a lot of opportunities on offense from our defense. That’s the kind of mindset we have to have coming into these games.”