HOUSTON -- Everything seems so easy for James Harden these days. It's not as easy as he's making it look, of course, as Harden isn't alone on the basketball court. But the ease and level at which he is playing makes everything look so smooth and effortless.
Harden was at his superlative best again, producing 31 points, 10 assists and no turnovers in leading the Houston Rockets past the Jazz 111-102 late Saturday afternoon.
It was such an ugly game, with both teams missing too many shots at the rim and struggling to find an effective offensive pace to push forward.
But there was Harden, bringing a calmness and beauty to the game with two fourth-quarter plays that symbolized what he means to the Rockets.
"We've been playing against each other since high school," Patrick Beverley said. "[Harden] can ball, man; he doesn't get enough credit. I feel like he's the best playmaker in the NBA right now. His IQ is high; every year he gets better. I feel like he doesn't get enough credit, but it's cool. We're going to turn it around this year by getting wins instead."
With the Rockets up 14, Harden had just stepped across midcourt and threw a pass toward the left corner of the backboard. Clint Capela, who is playing so well right now, reached up from the baseline with two hands for the dunk.
"That was thrown nicely but also not easy to do," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said.
Harden's pass resulted in his last assist of the game. He has scored at least 30 points and picked up at least 10 assists an NBA-high six times this season and has accomplished that feat 14 times since last season, which is far more than any other player.
His passing ability has been a revelation to those who don't watch him on a nightly basis. Last season, Harden averaged 7.5 assists per game, a career high. But his willingness to pass was overlooked last season amid a distasteful 41-41 campaign in which he felt the urge to do more scoring.
While he continues to score now, his trust level in his teammates has never been higher.
A pass from half court with a defender on him was a prime example of why he's so elite.
"I had confidence in throwing it," Harden said of the pass to Capela. "I knew where he was going to be. It's the kind of chemistry that we're trying to build, to know where guys are going to be. So everything looks easy and looks fluid."
Capela, who scored a career-high 20 points, is taking advantage of Harden's passing abilities, receiving lobs at the rim and cutting toward the basket in pick-and-rolls, making himself open for layups as defenders crash toward Harden.
When Harden does score it's a delightful experience, no matter what the game clock says. He closed the show by crossing over Dante Exum in the frontcourt with 14 seconds to play, stepping back and hitting a 25-foot 3-pointer.
The afternoon crowd at the Toyota Center went wild as Utah coach Quin Snyder called timeout, his team now down 11. Harden stood at half court with his arms spread out enjoying the cheers. He walked from midcourt to the basket near the Utah bench, spinning his index finger in a cooking-like motion as the ovation began to grow.
It's moments like these that were nearly absent last season, as the Rockets grinded their way through a coaching change and sneaked into the postseason on the last day of the regular season.
Based on what we've seen in the first 13 games, tiptoeing into the postseason won't be in the Rockets' plans. The team will charge into it.
Harden is the focal point when he runs an offense which varies pace in half-court sets, giving opposing defenses fits.
"The main thing you try to guard the guy [Harden] but [he's led] the league for many years in betting fouled," Utah's Rodney Hood said. "So that's the big thing to try and keep him off the line. He is a really good player and in their offense, they have a lot of shooters around him. Those guys know their roles, and it's pretty effective.'
Saturday afternoon was just another example of Harden simply being Harden.