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5-on-5: Can James Harden possibly keep this up?

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How do you guard James Harden? (2:26)

Kirk Goldsberry analyzes how James Harden has been dominating team's defenses and what can be done to slow him down. (2:26)

Can James Harden continue his incredible scoring run? How good are the Houston Rockets with a healthy Chris Paul?

Our experts answer the big questions about The Beard and this team.


1. What do you find most interesting about Harden's scoring streak?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN: Of the 255 shots he has made since the beginning of the 30-point streak, a whopping 231 of those field goals made have come unassisted. Much of this phenomenon can be attributed to the absence of Chris Paul, but it's still an extraordinary stat. This is a one-man show -- nothing but a stool, a microphone and the most prolific scorer of the current era.

Kirk Goldsberry, ESPN: Harden isn't just the best scorer of the decade, he's the weirdest one, too. Harden piles up points in such a peculiar way. He's going to shatter the NBA record for unassisted 3-pointers and he's getting 10 points a game at the free throw line. It's such an unprecedented combination. He's averaging more than 35 points per game, but 25 of them come from either 3s or free throws. He's blazing a brand-new trail to this level of scoring, and it's fascinating.

Tim MacMahon, ESPN: His ability to generate 3-point attempts, almost solely off the dribble, is astounding. Whine about all the whistles he gets if you don't want to enjoy historic excellence, but he's taking more 3s (15.6 per game) than free throws (14.6) during the streak -- and a lot of his trips to the line come due to his step-back jumper being so dangerous and difficult to guard that he gets hacked 25 feet from the hoop.

André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: He is doing it by himself, off the dribble. He hasn't had a shot assisted in five games, which is absurd. He's setting everything up himself, against defenses that can key on him with both Chris Paul and Clint Capela out.

Kevin Pelton, ESPN: His ability to ramp up his usage to historic levels without any loss in terms of efficiency. During his 30-point streak, Harden has finished an incomprehensible 44 percent of the Rockets' plays with a shot attempt, trip to the free throw line or turnover, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Yet Harden's .631 true shooting percentage would be the best of his seven seasons in Houston. Because of his ability to generate 3-pointers with step-backs and free throws, Harden has defied the usual trade-off between usage and efficiency.


2. How will Chris Paul's return affect Harden's offense?

Goldsberry: His usage will go down, but only slightly. His points will go down, but only slightly. I think we will continue to see huge scoring numbers, but I expect Paul to help with spacing and knocking down catch-and-shoot 3s.

Snellings: Harden's style hasn't changed during the streak, he's just shooting with more volume, so Paul's return does little to disrupt what Harden wants to do with the ball. Paul will, of course, eat a bit into Harden's opportunities, so his scoring volume should decrease. But Paul's presence also draws defensive attention and should allow Harden to be more efficient. Paul may even pass Harden the ball in position to shoot, and generate an actual assist.

Arnovitz: First, it will moderate some of the mileage Harden has run up over the past couple of months. The Rockets want to avoid a scenario like the 2017 playoffs, when he ran out of gas after playing just shy of 3,000 minutes in the regular season while chasing the MVP award. Second, and somewhat related, Paul's return to the floor will lessen the amount of work Harden has to expend for each shot attempt.

MacMahon: He'll get a little more rest and can occasionally give up the ball for a possession if he's gassed. But that's about it. If anything, it might help Harden because teams will be hesitant to double-team him well beyond the 3-point line. There certainly won't be any sort of power struggle. This is Harden's team. He's one of the best scorers to ever play the game and is in his absolute prime. Paul is his sidekick who needs to pace himself in hopes of being healthy for the playoffs.

Pelton: Harden has been a much smaller part of the Rockets' offense when he plays with Paul -- his usage rate is a full 10 percentage points higher with Paul on the bench this season, per NBA Advanced Stats. While I think Paul will take a back seat offensively after his early-season shooting slump, inevitably Harden won't have to (or perhaps get to) do as much with the ball. His minutes will also probably come down. Harden has averaged 38.9 minutes per game since Paul's hamstring strain, as compared to 36.4 beforehand. All of that will make it harder for Harden to put up eye-popping points totals.

3. What is the best way to defend Harden?

MacMahon: I thought the Bucks had a phenomenal game plan -- and personnel -- to defend Harden. They crowded him all over the court, daring him to drive to his right and into the trees, with Brook Lopez looming in the lane like a redwood. The Bucks were pleased with their execution and the results as they beat the Rockets in Houston. They held Harden to 42 points on 30 shots.

Goldsberry: Throw Andre Iguodala at him. Over the past two-plus seasons, 27 NBA players have matched up on Harden at least 100 times, per Second Spectrum tracking. Of that group, nobody has done better than Iggy, who has held Harden to just 19 points per 100 possessions in those matchups. Iguodala is long enough to contest the step-back, fast enough to keep up on the drives and smart enough to avoid stupid fouls. The good news for Houston is that not every team has someone like Iggy. The bad news is that Golden State does.

Arnovitz: Crisco (shortening, not oil), a live tiger and a light saber.

Pelton: With CP3 out, I think aggressively trapping and conceding open 3s to the other Rockets was the best strategy. Despite Paul's shooting slump, I'd be a lot less comfortable doing that now. Paul is more likely to turn those man advantages into layups or dunks, and I expect him to shoot better after his return. That leaves avoiding fouls and hoping Harden misses his step-backs as the best strategy I see.

Snellings: Big, quick, aggressive wings on the perimeter and a versatile, long, agile big man defending the pick-setter for the ubiquitous Harden on-ball screen. Harden's primary defender should apply intelligent but aggressive pressure when Harden dribbles, then do everything he can to deny Harden when he doesn't have the ball. The defender should be pressing enough on the perimeter to funnel Harden into the paint, and take a chance that the help defense can make him less efficient than he is as a volume 3-point shooter.


4. Fact or fiction: With a healthy Chris Paul, the Rockets have an equally good chance to make the NBA Finals as they did last season.

Pelton: Fiction. A healthy Paul isn't necessarily as good as the one we saw last season, and while GM Daryl Morey has been aggressive about turning over the back half of the roster, I still don't think there's as many players capable of keeping up with the Warriors in a playoff series as last season.

Snellings: Fact. As I've maintained all season, the Rockets with a healthy Paul (and Capela) are a strong threat to make the NBA Finals. Harden has shown himself to be unstoppable individually, but Paul takes pressure off of him on offense, which allows Harden to play more defense and save energy for the clutch. Paul is also the better floor general, which gets the most out of the role players. Finally, Paul is by far the best at creating a good midrange look when the 3-pointers are off and the defense takes away the drive, preventing the lulls that the Rockets otherwise sometimes fall into.

MacMahon: Fiction. Paul's production dipped significantly this season before his extended absence. He wasn't playing at a superstar level like last season. But Harden gives the Rockets hope in any series, and Capela was playing the best basketball of his career before the right thumb injury that will keep him out until right after the All-Star break. Morey knows he needs to upgrade the 3-and-D help to maximize the Rockets' title odds.

Goldsberry: I can't type "fiction" fast enough. Sure, Harden is melting everyone's faces on offense, but Houston's defense is an absolute dumpster fire. The Rockets rank 27th in defensive rating, down from seventh last season. Anyone trying to get to the NBA Finals will have to get stops against some ferocious Western Conference foes. Without Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, it's hard to imagine this Rockets group suddenly shutting down the best of the West.

Arnovitz: Fiction. The Rockets aren't far off their 2017-18 offensive production (114.0 points per 100 possessions last season, versus 113.6 this season). The falloff has come on the defensive end of the floor. Chris Paul is an excellent defender, but he can't compensate for that disparity, especially with Clint Capela also on the shelf for another few weeks.


5. Fact or fiction: Harden now has a strong lead in the MVP race.

Snellings: Fiction. Harden has gone on an amazing surge and shown that he is still the MVP that he was a season ago. However, Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn't gone anywhere. He continues his own attack on the league with a trifecta of things in his favor: his personal numbers are outstanding and unique, the Bucks' entire style of play is built around his skill set and that combo has produced the best record in the NBA. Even Harden's heroics over the past month can't get any separation from that, and if the Bucks finish the season on top, it will be hard for anyone to beat Giannis.

Goldsberry: Fact. Like it or not, we're suckers for numbers, and this dude's numbers are off the charts. Other players, such as Giannis or Paul George, might be more complete players, but Harden's scoring stats are likely to propel him to his second straight MVP.

MacMahon: Fact. Harden ran away with it last season, getting 86 of 101 votes, and he has been significantly better despite much tougher circumstances this season. The Rockets obviously won't have the NBA's best record again, but nobody else is having a campaign that compares to Harden's historical dominance.

Arnovitz: Slight lead. Antetokoumpo's overall production challenges Harden's body of work. Antetokoumpo has been more efficient, has an identical assist percentage (despite playing in the frontcourt), rebounds with reckless abandon and is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year contender, and the team he leads has a chance to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference and possibly the NBA.

Pelton: Fact. He's got an advantage of nearly three wins above replacement player (WARP) over the next best player (Paul George) in my metric. There's no such thing as a one-man team, but the past month we've seen from Harden as the Rockets stayed afloat without first Paul and then also Capela was about as close as we've ever seen.