James Harden Must Be Houston Rockets’ Ignition

James Harden drove straight at the rim, past Lonzo Ball and into the outstretched arms of JaVale McGee reaching out for the block. Harden cocked back the ball and hammered it through the rim into McGee’s chest, who staggered about on the floor before completely falling down like he’d been shot in the gut.

It was the kind of dunk that brought the fans to their feet and Twitter into pandemonium.

It was the early-season front-runner for dunk of the year.

Spectacular as it was in its spectacle, it meant more than just two points. It came three minutes into a game that was less than a third of the way through the season as the Houston Rockets took an 8-6 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yet, if the Rockets are back in contention in late spring, we’ll look back at this time, at this current series of games—and perhaps even at this dunk—as when Clutch City turned it around.

That’s because of how badly the Houston Rockets have been struggling so far.

In fact, they’ve been struggling since Game 7 of the Finals: They struggled to make a 3 with their season on the line, missing a seemingly impossible 27 straight from distance. They struggled this offseason, losing key defenders Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to free agency. They struggled out of the gate for the season, as first Chris Paul was suspended, then Harden was injured.

And then, they just started struggling all over all the time. They struggled to get stops and make shots.

Unsurprisingly, they’ve fallen in the standings from the NBA’s top record last year, to the West’s second-worst record.

When the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers came to town, it felt like the Rockets’ season was already in danger. Even Houston fans were asking if their team might miss the playoffs entirely.

And the man who bore the brunt of the most criticism was Harden. Harden, the one who “is lazy on defense”, who “gives up in the playoffs, who “doesn’t have any killer-instinct.” Every loss, every disappointment always comes down to him.

He’s arguably the NBA’s most criticized elite player.

In that one dunk, it was if all his personal frustrations and all of the Rockets’ frustrations were flushed through the rim, cast on McGee and released in the “flex” that followed.

Then, Harden proceeded to have a game for the ages, the fourth 50-point triple-double of his career.

Perhaps even more impressive than the dunk that started it all? How Harden finished.

When the Lakers pulled to within three with 4:16 left to go in the fourth, Harden went on a personal 9-0 run in 52 seconds. First, he drew a foul from behind the 3-point line and buried all three freebies. Then he hit a 3 with 3:40 left and followed that with a step-back trey 28 seconds later with LeBron in his face.

And just like that, he put the game out of reach for the Lakers. He outscored LA 15-5 by himself during the last four minutes, though Clint Capela did get a bucket as well.

There was something new about Harden in this game that’s hard to put a finger on, but it does come down to that “killer instinct.” No, he was vicious. He was Dexter with a beard and a basketball.

Harden paraded that same angry swag that followed his dunk the whole time, storming up and down the court with a scowl that would make Russell Westbrook proud. It was more than what we’ve seen from him before. Like the bullied kid who finally swung back and found out he has a mean left hook.

It wasn’t just a “win” for Harden and the Rockets, it was a statement that the Rockets aren’t ready to be written off this season. They’re just tired of losing, and they’re gonna do something about it.

The game before that, the Rockets played the Portland Trail Blazers but got off to a rocky start before pulling things together in the second half. Harden a solid, though, not great game scoring 29 points and dishing four assists.

Next, Houston played the Memphis Grizzlies, and Harden had another fantastic outing, dropping a 37-point triple double. When Memphis looked to make a comeback, it was Harden who shut it down, scoring or assisting on the Rockets’ last 13 points.

Through the Lakers and Grizzlies games combined, James Harden has generated 137 points passing or scoring with him and his teammates having an 82.5 true shooting percentage when he either shoots or his teammates shoot off his passes.

We’ve seen Harden play incredible basketball before. Obviously, you don’t win the MVP without being able to do that. But that extra gear? That “play-angry” gear? That “I hate losing” gear? That was something new. That’s the kind of performance you see from Finals MVPs.

And if Harden is going to play like this with his back against the wall, don’t count out the Rockets just yet.