Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson, who has helped turn the Nets around in his short time in New York, had emptied his brain trying to stop James Harden.
Every defensive scheme he could think of, a 2-3 zone, a box-and-one, hedging, picking Harden up full court, using big defenders, using small ones – all of them – wouldn’t work.
“As a coach,” Atkinson told the Times,” you’re like, ‘What can you do?’”
So in the final minutes of one of the most exciting games in the NBA this season, Atkinson did the only thing he could do. He double-teamed Harden as soon as he crossed half court.
“That was our last option,” Atkinson said. “…We just left another guy.”
Wednesday, there just weren’t enough “other guys” for the Rockets to pair with a 58-point dandy from Harden, as the Rockets lost 145-142 in overtime to Brooklyn.
With Chris Paul out with a hamstring injury (he’ll miss Saturday’s game against the Lakers) center Clint Capela down with a thumb injury and Eric Gordon on a tight minutes restriction, Houston was forced to close with one player who wasn’t on the team a month ago – Austin Rivers – and another who wasn’t on the team a day ago – newly signed wing James Nunnally.
“I’ve seen everything you can see defensively throughout this entire year. Literally everything,” Harden said. “Guys are just running, leaving their man to double team. Trapping. Everything.”
It meant Harden had to, once again, carry an ungodly workload. Wednesday he played 45 minutes, second only to Rivers, despite being in foul trouble. And, it meant Harden, no matter how many players you sent at him, was still pretty unstoppable.
His 58 points Wednesday against Brooklyn topped a 57-point game two nights ago in Memphis. He’s scored at least 30 in each of his last 18 games, the longest streak in the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain did so in 20-straight games in 1964. He’s averaging more than 40 points over his last 20 games, the fifth-longest streak ever (Kobe Bryant, third on the list, once did it over a 23-game stretch).
“I don’t know why I’m speechless but I’m speechless at how good he is,” Atkinson said after Wednesday’s game. “It changes everything, how you coach. We’re doing things we’ve never done before. He’s changing how the game’s played.
And it took a near miracle to keep Harden from carrying Houston to its 15th win in its last 19 games.
Brooklyn guard Spencer Dinwiddie hit a trio of three-point shots in just 17.8 seconds to send the game to overtime, despite trailing by as many as 14 earlier in the fourth quarter.
“It was an incredible moment,” Dinwiddie said.
The joy of the Brooklyn Nets, a surprise team in the Eastern Conference with its eyes set on the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2015, was offset by the disappointment in the Rockets’ locker room, where Harden was one of the last players to leave.
“Frustrating,” he said of the loss.
Down the stretch in overtime, Harden looked tired, his jersey soaked through with sweat. The Rockets used him as a decoy on the final play of the game, a three-point shot from Gerald Green that could’ve forced a second overtime.
Since Paul injured his hamstring on Dec. 20, Harden’s usage rate — a statistic that estimates the number of possessions used by a player — tops the league at 43.7%. The gap in usage-rate points between Philadelphia center Joel Embiid (second) and Boston forward Marcus Morris (102nd) during that stretch is the same as the gap between Harden (first) and Embiid (second).
It’s not stopped him one bit – at least not yet.
You can’t watch the Rockets play, and watch Harden dominate entire possessions and wonder about how it’ll affect him long term. In his last three trips to the postseason, Harden’s shooting a combined 29.3% from three-point range – a sure sign that his legs might be weakened by the time the playoffs roll around.
But he doesn’t have the luxury to relax, not with Paul and Capela, Houston’s other two best players, out.
Most nights, 58 points from Harden – to go along with 10 rebounds and six assists – would be enough for a win.