HOUSTON -- James Harden has never been better. For that matter, few in the history of the sport ever have.
His two most recent performances have put Harden in the statistical company of the league's most elite legends. During his career-best 56-point explosion in Sunday's rout of the Utah Jazz, Harden joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to record 50-point, 10-assist outings while making at least 75 percent of their shots. The bearded face of the Houston Rockets followed that up by outdueling LeBron James and joining Michael Jordan as the lone players in the past three decades to post a triple-double with at least 35 points and five steals.
"Right now, he's taking it to another level," Rockets reserve guard Bobby Brown said after Harden finished with 35 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists and five steals in Thursday's 117-113 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. "And he has to because we need him to score, pass, rebound, get steals and all that."
The Rockets hoped to lighten Harden's workload by pairing him with perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul, but those plans were put on hold by a knee injury that has sidelined Paul since the season opener. Paul's return is near -- "in a week or so," coach Mike D'Antoni said -- but the Rockets have rolled to a 9-3 record that is tied for the best in the West with Harden shouldering as big a burden as ever.
Of course, Harden knows all too well that it's about how he finishes, not how he starts. Historical production in November is nice, but he'll be judged on his performances in May and beyond, his miserable recent playoff finishes fresh in the minds of critics.
Harden's finish against the Cavs wasn't a thing of beauty by any stretch. After a stretch so efficient it looks like a typo (88 points on 38 field goal attempts in the previous seven quarters), he was 1-of-8 in the fourth quarter and missed his final six shots as the Cavs rallied to almost steal the game.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Harden's shots consistently came up short down the stretch. He played a season-high 43 minutes, including the entire second half with Luc Mbah a Moute joining Paul in street clothes while nursing his own bruised left knee, leaving the Rockets with essentially a seven-man rotation. And Harden worked hard for his buckets and trips to the line -- his 14 free throws matched the Cavs' team total -- creating off the dribble possession after possession after possession. (Poor Jeff Green played perhaps the best defensive possession of his life in the third quarter, twice denying Harden's attempts to drive, only to have his eye dotted by a step-back 3.)
"I was good," Harden said, dismissing fatigue as a factor in the fourth quarter, when Clint Capela (19 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks) was the lone Rocket to score in the final 8:01. "Couldn't make a shot, but I'm good."
It's worth noting that, as clearly gassed as he was, Harden made a critical hustle play to keep the Cavs at bay. Harden missed a finger roll after a spectacular crossover dribble but managed to dig the loose ball out of a crowd near the free throw line. He immediately found Capela for a lob and and-1 finish, ending a drought of 11 straight missed field goals by the Rockets and pushing Houston's lead to four points with 1:10 remaining.
For Harden, it wasn't enough to post a line in the box score that put him in rare air. He had to do some dirty work to get this win.
"We ask a lot of him, but when you've got more money than the state of Texas, you're going to be asked a lot," D'Antoni said with a laugh, referring to Harden signing the richest contract in NBA history over the summer. "That's just the way it is."
Harden's usage rate (35.2 percent) is the highest of his career, tied for the 25th highest in league history. He's averaging a career-high 29.9 points and boasts the best shooting percentages (45.7 from the floor, 40.6 on 3s) since becoming a go-to guy upon his arrival in Houston.
How did the MVP runner-up become even better at the age of 28? Harden shrugged -- "I don't know. Work." -- but Brown knows exactly how.
"He's in better shape," said Brown, a longtime friend of Harden's who trained with him in Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas and Houston over the summer. "He shredded a lot of weight. He's on a different eating plan as well. When we took care of his body this summer, you can tell on the court. He can move faster."
In theory, dropping 10 to 15 pounds should also help Harden finish the season stronger. Of course, so should adding a future Hall of Fame teammate.
Harden's load will be lightened when Paul joins him in the backcourt. There won't be a need to push his minutes into the 40s with one of the NBA's premier playmakers more than capable of running the Rockets' offense while Harden rests. Harden won't have to create every possession when he shares the court with Paul.
However, team insiders anticipate that Paul will have to adjust to playing off the ball much more often than Harden. The Rockets are still Harden's team. Their aspirations to emerge as legitimate title contenders depend in large part on Harden accomplishing his goal of always being the best player on the court.
"We rely on him, and we'll always rely on him," D'Antoni said. "But I do see in a week or so that we'll get Chris Paul back and take a lot of that off of him. The season's long. Tonight's focus was to win this game. Then we've gotta worry about Saturday, but we'll get through this and get Chris back and Mbah a Moute back, and then his minutes load and what we expect of him will decrease some.
"But when you're a superstar, you're going to carry the team a lot of times."