Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Houston Rockets were in a giving mood Wednesday and luckily for fantasy owners, so was James Harden.
Just hours after inking a five-year, $80 million contract extension to stay with Houston (I imagine Harden will put the money in a vault and swim around in it like Scrooge McDuck), Harden gave back by delivering one of the more sensational efforts we've seen on opening night in recent memory.
Playing alongside fan favorite Jeremy Lin, Harden registered an amazing 37 points on 14-of-25 field goal shooting. While he was torching the Detroit Pistons with a dizzying array of 3-pointers and left-handed drives to the hoop, Harden somehow had time to dish out 12 assists (a career-high), six rebounds, four steals and a blocked shot.
To put that heap of fantasy awesomeness into perspective, know that only three other players have accomplished those single-game totals (37 pts/12 assists/6 reb/4 stl/1 blk) over the past two-and-a-half decades. Their names are Larry Bird (three-time MVP, 12 time-All-Star), Dwyane Wade (eight-time All-Star, two- time NBA champion) and Michael Jordan (do I even need to say it?).
This was one for the ages, folks. The Atlanta Hawks, Houston's next opponent, should be legitimately scared to face Harden on Friday. It's like Magic Johnson, Shaq, Allen Iverson and Reggie Miller morphed into one unstoppable force and became James Harden for a night (I didn't get all the way through it, but this might also have been the plot of "Hot Tub Time Machine").
My respect for Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks was cut in half after Wednesday night. Seriously, you've had this guy coming off the bench the last three seasons? (Cue Ron Burgundy screaming "What is this, amateur hour?" while punching a table.)
Fantasy owners should be on their knees thanking Thunder general manager Sam Presti for allowing this trade to happen. Sure, Harden may have won a ring in Oklahoma City, but he never would have reached his full fantasy potential, which is what we are witnessing right now.
Though Harden is known for his deadly 3-point stroke (39 percent from that distance last season), he's far from a one-trick pony. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, the 23-year-old Harden is strong enough to absorb contact and still finish when he drives to the hoop. Harden's superior size also comes in handy on the glass; he's one of the game's better rebounding guards.
Harden averaged 31.4 minutes per game with the Thunder in 2011-12. Wednesday, he was on the court for 44 minutes. Given the team's lack of depth at shooting guard (his backup is journeyman Daequan Cook, a 37.4 percent shooter who has averaged 19.9 minutes per game in his career), it's feasible that Harden could continue to see that amount of playing time.
With 13 more minutes to fill up the stat sheet each night, Harden should go bonkers this season in Houston. Plus, he won't be sharing the rock with notorious ball hog Russell Westbrook or trigger-happy superstar Kevin Durant like he did in OKC.
You might as well put a "Property of James Harden" sticker on it because this offense belongs to Harden now. After the trade went down, I wondered if Harden would defer to Lin, who became famous for his shoot-first style of play with the New York Knicks last season. On Wednesday, it was the other way around. Lin, who attempted 12 shots to Harden's 25, seemed perfectly content to play the role of distributor while Harden attacked the rim. Lin finished the night with eight assists.
It's possible that the Houston offense could become more balanced and slightly less Harden-oriented as the season progresses (remember, Harden had only practiced with the team twice before Wednesday's opener), but I doubt coach Kevin McHale strays too far from that approach.
The Rockets worked the pick-and-roll with Harden and forward Marcus Morris to perfection on Wednesday and as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I assume that's also how Harden feels about his beard, which is bordering on Brian Wilson-level absurdity at the moment.
"They only stuck to a couple plays the entire game," Detroit forward Tayshaun Prince admitted after the game. "The more (Harden) has the ball in his hands, the more dangerous he is."
Amazing. The Pistons knew exactly what was coming ... and they still couldn't stop him. That's the power of James Harden.
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