James Harden has saved Houston’s season and revived his MVP chances

HOUSTON — James Harden heard all of the talk.

Some of it was about his Houston Rockets, who followed last season’s 65-win campaign by beginning this season with an 11-14 record, one that left them languishing in 14th place in the Western Conference in mid-December. Some of it was about him, as the league’s reigning most valuable player was almost instantly ruled out of competing for a chance to repeat as the award’s winner this season after a sluggish start of his own.

So Harden went to work. He put in extra time in the gym. He put in extra time in the weight room. Eventually, things began to turn around — for the Rockets and for Harden.

Suddenly, things look a lot different here in Clutch City. Houston has ripped off eight wins in its past nine games, including Thursday night’s 127-113 victory over the Boston Celtics. Much of that success has been because of Harden, who has played like a man possessed, including his 45 points while tying a career high of nine 3-pointers in Thursday’s win, and at a level exceeding even his MVP campaign last season.

“The game slows down [for him],” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I wish I knew [how] because then I’d have a clue of what he does.

“I don’t think anybody can figure out what he does, just because he does it so well.”

In the early stages of this season, it didn’t always look like that. Yes, Harden’s numbers were there — he averaged 28.5 points and 9.0 assists the first four games of the season before missing three games with a hamstring injury and then averaging 31 points and 8.7 assists in November — but the results were not.

So Harden threw himself into the gym in an attempt to get his body back to where it was last season. The result has been a season-changing stretch for both himself and his team.

“He comes in and does extra work,” D’Antoni said. “He knew he had to take his body to one more level up. He had to get into a better rhythm.

“He’s been playing a lot of one-on-one. He’s been getting a lot of extra work in the weight room. He’s been putting his time in, and it’s obviously paying dividends.”

A quick look at Harden’s recent play will back that up. During this nine-game stretch, his stats across the board are remarkable: 39.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 2.0 steals per game to go with shooting 44.7 percent overall, 40.7 percent from 3-point range and 87.8 percent from the foul line. He has had eight straight 30-point games and has eclipsed 40 points three times in his past six. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the 388 points Harden has scored in his past 10 games are the most by any NBA player in a 10-game stretch since Kobe Bryant scored 396 from March 22 to April 8, 2007.

“I think he’s just wanted to pick it up and take it to another level,” Rockets forward PJ Tucker said. “I don’t think he was playing at the level he wanted to early on. He’s got his body in such great shape now, being able to push through the times when he gets tired, teams throwing double teams, different kinds of looks, and his determination to still score and get to his spots is pretty remarkable.

“It’s just what he does.”

A deeper dive, though, shows that Harden is truly doing things no one else has done before.

Take his signature shot, for example: the step-back 3-pointer. Harden buried eight of them in Thursday’s game alone and has now gone 31-for-69 on such shots in his nine-game hot streak, per Second Spectrum.

To put that into context: Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic has the second-most step-back 3s in the league this season. Doncic has hit 24 of them in 32 games.

Harden, meanwhile, has made 88 this season, just eight fewer than his total (96) for the entirety of the past season. The next six players on the list — Doncic, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Kemba Walker and Mike Conley Jr. — have combined to hit the same number.

“Like I’ve said before, it’s just the work you put in,” Harden said. “If you put the work in, you’re going to get the results. So those moves I was doing tonight on the court, I was doing them yesterday in practice and after practice after everybody left.

“If you take those shots, and you’re confident in those shots, those shots will go in. Sometimes they might not go in, but mostly they will go in. So you’ve just got to keep going and keep working.”

Harden, though, is doing more than just continuing to work. He’s taking on a bigger burden than he ever has before. The 34 shots he took against the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 22 and the 35 he took against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas — both wins — were the most shots he has ever taken in a game. Add his 31 shots against the Jazz on Dec. 17, and he has had three of the seven highest volume shooting games of his career in the past 10 days.

And not only is he doing that, but he’s also doing it with an efficiency he has never shown previously.

“He just has a mastery of the game and a control and an ease at which he plays,” D’Antoni said. “It’s fun to watch. On this side, it’s fun.”

Harden’s play has powered Houston’s rise back up through the crowded Western Conference standings. The Rockets now sit in seventh place, just three games out of first. That turnaround has led to revised talk about whether Harden can find his way back to the top of an equally crowded MVP field.

At first, Harden tried to defer to his teammates Thursday when asked about his hot streak. He talked about the recent addition of Austin Rivers, who has helped fill in for injured star Chris Paul, and how injuries have taken a toll on the roster throughout the season and how, only now, the Rockets are finding their sea legs.

But then he was asked if his recent play, and his team’s recent success, merited his return to the MVP conversation. It quickly became clear that the idea that he was a one-and-done MVP winner is something Harden simply wouldn’t accept.

“I mean, yeah. Of course I should be in that conversation,” he said, followed by a laugh and a shake of his head. “I mean, I receive a lot of hate, but it won’t stop me from going out there and killing every single night, being that dog that I am. You can name a few other people that should be in the conversation.

“But realistically? It’s coming back.”

When asked if this, perhaps, is part of what has fueled his recent play, Harden smiled.

“It’s cool,” he said. “I expected it. The conversation will be going on for the rest of the year.”

If Harden keeps playing like this, not only will he remain in the middle of it, but he just might be right about that award coming back.

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