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James Harden is running roughshod through the NBA, putting up jaw dropping numbers on a nightly basis, but Lorenzo Reyes is here to spark the conversation on whether or not he’s the best pure scorer we’ve ever seen.
USA TODAY

James Harden is a one-man show.

Part gifted offensive player, part performance art, part lightning rod, Harden is drumming up offensive production the league hasn’t seen since Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan scored in prodigious amounts.

Harden’s offensive genius was on display Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden when he scored a career-high 61 points, which tied Bryant for most points by a visiting player at the Garden.

He now has scored at least 30 points in 21 consecutive games, averaging 41.3 points, 8.4 assists and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 43.7 percent from the field and 37.5 percent on three-pointers during that stretch. He’s also attempting 14.6 free throws per game and making 13.

But that doesn’t begin to tell the full story.

Harden’s offensive outburst has coincided with Houston’s rise in the standings. On Dec. 9, the Rockets were 11-14 and in 14th place in the Western Conference. Granted, teams were bunched closely in the standings, but Houston did not look like the team that pushed Golden State to seven games in last season’s conference finals.

Since then, the Rockets are 16-6 and Harden is putting together a season that has made him the MVP favorite.

And while he has teammates and is not playing 1-on-5, this is about as close to a one-man show found in the NBA.

Harden has made 463 buckets this season and just 53 have been assisted, according to nba.com/stats. For comparison, Golden State’s Steph Curry has made 350 shots with 201 assisted and teammate Kevin Durant has made 455 shots and 204 have been assisted. Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, who loves to have the ball, might be the closest to Harden with just 104 assisted buckets on 340 makes.

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But Houston’s offense is simple. Give the ball to Harden and let him create. In his past five games, he has scored 261 points – 57 vs. Memphis, 58 vs. Brooklyn, 48 vs. the Lakers, 37 vs. Philadelphia and 61 vs. the Knicks. That’s 76 made baskets and every single one was unassisted. It seems impossible to make that many shots without at least one teammate setting up the bucket with a pass.

It shows how unstoppable he is. Everyone knows what he’s going to do, and he still does it.

There are so many ways to highlight Harden’s offensive production. He has five 50-point games this season, the most since Bryant had 10 in 2006-07. And Harden is the first player in NBA history to record four 50-point triple-doubles.

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His 21-game streak with 30 points or more is the fifth-longest in NBA history and the longest by a player other than Wilt Chamberlain.

Harden is on pace to join Jordan as the only players in NBA history to average at least 35 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals in a season.

Harden’s shot profile is a lesson in efficiency. Of his 1,052 attempts, 583 are three pointers and 297 are inside the restricted area at the rim. So, 84 percent of his shots are either three-pointers or layups.

Then, mix in the other efficient shot: the free throw. He shoots a league-high 11.9 and makes a league-high 10.3 per game. In a 43-point performance against Memphis, Harden had just eight made field goals. But he made six threes and 21 free throws.

It’s the antithesis of Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive philosophy, but D’Antoni gets credit for recognizing how effective Harden can be playing isolation basketball and making it work. Besides all his scoring, Harden is tied for third in assists per game at 8.3

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It’s a one-man show that isn’t always palatable to the purists and to some coaches and executives around the league. Harden gets the ball at the top of the key and just tries to beat his man one-on-one off the dribble.

His critics complain that he gets away with too much traveling and pushoffs with his forearm, that he creates the contact as he barrels into the lane like a bowling ball trying to knock over 10 pins. His critics also say he manipulates the game and bends or breaks rules to his favor – even saying he tricks officials. He is the best in drawing fouls, including getting players to foul him on three-pointers.

Teams are so worried about getting called for a foul that some defenders have (perhaps facetiously?) guarded Harden with their hands behind their back.

One team employee told USA TODAY Sports that Harden has figured out how to game the game. The person, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about Harden, doesn’t blame the Rockets guard. And others give Harden credit for maximizing what he does better than anyone in the league.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey claps back, saying a player can’t gimmick his way to 35 points.

Whether you like his style or not, Harden has mastered the offensive side of the game. 

Follow Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

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