HOUSTON -- The Houston Rockets' leading man was sitting down at his locker, icing feet and knees, tuning out the world with headphones playing something through his ears.
James Harden has to do nearly everything these days for a team in a desperate situation to make the postseason, so excuse him for just relaxing a moment.
Harden recorded his third triple-double of the season with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in a 112-109 victory over Toronto on Friday night.
As it stands, Stephen Curry is such a joy to watch these days with his beautiful outside shooting that he'll most likely repeat as MVP of the league. The physical dominance of LeBron James reminds you on most nights that he takes over games instead of making news on social media with cryptic thoughts and his aspirations on creating super teams. Of course, Russell Westbrook plays with such a fury it appears he’s alone on the floor. You can’t forget about the silent killer in San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard, or Westbrook’s teammate in Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant, who is just as versatile.
His game is so well-rounded with jumpers, ability to draw fouls with drives and that magic eye to find open shooters he should be mentioned as one of the top-10 players in his sport.
“He’s turned it up,” interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “I believe he’s trying to will us into the playoffs and we’re fortunate to have a guy who has the ability to do that. [There’s] not many of them in this league. His performances, his understanding of what it means to get this team into the playoffs, the importance of winning at this moment and for him to be able to channel it, harness it to be this productive is unbelievable. We’re riding him right now. We have to give him [an] opportunity to rest.”
Yes, the rest part.
Harden compiled 41 minutes on Friday night, marking the 25th time this season he has pushed his body to that amount of time on the floor. Last season, when he finished second to Curry in the MVP vote, Harden reached 40-plus minutes just 13 times.
With nine games remaining in the regular season, Harden most likely will double that mark.
“Any time I can get some rest, it's a boost for me,” he said. “Every game from here on out is important, and we got to be focused.”
The focused part has missed the Rockets this season, from a lack of effort on the defensive end to their struggles on offense when the ball just sticks to Harden and nobody moves. There’s a reason why the Rockets are hovering near .500, just one-half game ahead of Utah for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
For the entire season, Harden has been it for the Rockets. His defensive abilities are poor, mostly from a lack of awareness on some plays and his inability athletically to guard people along the perimeter. When Harden tries on defense, he makes plays.
In the fourth quarter, Harden snuck a hand in the passing lane for a steal and fired a pass to Jason Terry, who nailed a jumper to give the Rockets an 81-78 lead. After a Toronto miss, it was Harden snagging the rebound that led to a Michael Beasley jumper and a five-point lead.
On the next three plays, Harden nailed a 3, assisted on another Terry jumper and found Corey Brewer for a layup as the Rockets took the momentum and led 91-80.
Bickerstaff stuck with a small lineup despite foul trouble to his bigs, Dwight Howard and Clint Capela, and things worked. The game got close late, but when the Raptors had a chance to make it a one-possession game, Kyle Lowry missed two of three free throws with 35.5 seconds left.
Trevor Ariza hit one foul shot and Harden made two more to seal it.
“A must win,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “I don’t keep up with the standings, but I know we’re not top 3, so every game is a must win and every game is a chance to continue to get better, offensively and defensively.”
Reaching the postseason rests on Harden's performance -- it’s just the reality of the situation. It doesn’t matter if Howard continues to struggle with his offensive game; the Rockets will need Harden to handle this every night.
“He carries a lot of this on his shoulders,” Beverley said.
Of course he does.