HOUSTON -- When legally executed, James Harden's step-back jumper is one of the league's most lethal weapons and heavily debated topics, as many opponents regularly take umbrage with the allowance of a "gather step" and insist that the reigning NBA MVP's go-to move should be ruled a travel.
The move Harden made in the final minute of the Houston Rockets' 102-97 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday didn't fall into that category. It was simply a missed travel at a critical time, leading to Harden's shooting three free throws in a one-possession game with 54.6 seconds remaining.
Harden shuffled to his right for two extra steps on the step-back to get behind the 3-point line before being fouled by Jazz guard Ricky Rubio.
"You watch the play? What do you think?" Rubio said when asked whether he thought Harden traveled, not wanting to get fined for criticizing officiating. "I'm not going to answer, but I think 100 percent of the people know the answer."
Harden didn't deny that he got away with a walk.
"What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?" Harden said.
The missed traveling call added a controversial element, but Harden's 47-point outing against the Jazz was the continuation of an offensive groove for the Rockets superstar. He is averaging 39.5 points per game during Houston's four-game winning streak, highlighted by a pair of triple-doubles, including a 50-point performance against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Harden attributed his recent dominance to "just being aggressive," noting that the Rockets need to get on a roll after their disappointing start. Houston improved to 15-14 by beating the Jazz, putting the Rockets in 10th place in the Western Conference standings.
"We're in a hole," Harden said. "I keep saying the same thing, but you look at the standings and it sucks. Just look and see that you're not where you're supposed to be. We'll just continue to work and build our way up there."
Harden hurt the Jazz in the three areas in which he scores in bunches when he's at his best: around the rim, at the free throw line and behind the 3-point line. Nine of Harden's 14 field goals came in the restricted area, including a spectacular, right-handed slam over reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert after driving down the lane. He was 15-of-16 on free throws. And while Harden had an off night from long range (4-of-12), he swished his last two 3s, breaking a tie with a 29-footer with 1:44 remaining and drilling a step-back dagger with 13.3 seconds left.
"I say it all the time: He's the best offensive player I've ever seen," said Rockets guard Chris Paul, who had 11 points and nine assists in the win. "Like, seriously. He can drive, he can shoot, he's got ballhandling. It's going to be a tough night for you, whoever it is. I don't care what you're doing."