James Harden deserves your undivided attention every time he steps on the court. He’s on one of the hottest scoring streaks in the history of the NBA, and he’s dominating the league in arguably the weirdest way ever. Take, for example, his stat line from Wednesday’s 114-110 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Harden scored 61 points on 17-of-38 shooting, including 5-of-20 from three while hitting 22-of-25 free throws (he also added fifteen rebounds and five steals, but who cares).
And absolutely none of those points were scored off of an assist.
It was an iconic performance for Harden in the most treasured arena in basketball. And he managed to execute the most impressive moment of it all before halftime, when he topped thirty points for his twenty-first consecutive game. With that, he passed Wilt Chamberlain for the fourth-longest streak in NBA history (Chamberlain owns the three longest streaks ahead of Harden, including a 65-straight record).
Over his past five games alone, Harden has scored an insane 261 points—the second most by any player in the same time frame over the past fifty seasons, according to ESPN. And, again, he didn’t need a teammate for any of those 76 shots.
Harden’s dominant streak might in part be a product of the weakened Rockets lineup (Chris Paul has been out with an injury since December 20, and Clint Capela missed the past five games with a longterm thumb injury), but it’s impressive nonetheless to see Harden carry the team on his
back beard. He’s averaging a ridiculous 45.3 points through eleven games in January, pushing his season average to 36.3 points per game. Only two players have ever finished with a higher scoring average: Michael Jordan (once in 1986-87) and Wilt Chamberlain (five times). He’s so far ahead of the pack this year that he’s earned himself a ten-game cushion, according to the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen:
With his 61-point game last night, Harden is averaging 36.3 points peer game. If he goes scoreless in his next 10 games and Curry, Davis stay on their current pace, he'd still lead the NBA in scoring (29.55 to 29.3.)
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) January 24, 2019
Harden’s had five games this season where he’s scored fifty points or more. Throughout the NBA this season, that’s only been done eight times, and no other player has done it more than once. As Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN after Wednesday’s game: “The guy is just good.”
It might seem easy to dismiss Harden’s streak. He’s a high-volume scorer who seems to force his way to the free throw line a million times a game. And, as Harden’s many critics frequently note, he doesn’t always play great defense, holds the ball too much, and sometimes appears to take more steps than are allowed.
But let’s turn to the numbers, here. Earlier this week, the Ringer did a great analysis of Harden’s streak from a statistics-nerd perspective, basically coming to the conclusion that there is absolutely no solid argument that could poke a hole in Harden’s historic streak. According to the Ringer, Harden would still lead the league in scoring even if free throws didn’t count; would still have the edge if the three-point shot didn’t exist; and has remained a very efficient scorer despite the massive increase in volume. Harden has also single-handedly brought the Rockets back into contention after a rough start to the season. The Rockets are 15-6 during Harden’s scoring streak and currently sit in fifth place in the Western Conference.
It’s unlikely Harden will break Chamberlain’s streak of 65 games scoring more than thirty points. Chris Paul is reportedly close to returning from his injury, and the NBA is a vastly different game than it was when the seven-foot-one Chamberlain destroyed a league that was shorter, less dynamic on offense, and a lot slower. Harden will have a tough test on Friday night against the Toronto Raptors, one of the league’s best teams. But no matter how much longer his streak lasts, barring a second half collapse, Harden is likely on his way to a second straight MVP award. He has firmly cemented his status as one of the greatest scorers of all time.