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Houston Rockets Extend Winning Streak to Seven, James Harden Proves the Value of a Cold-Blooded, Clutch Scorer

Despite His Defensive Problems, the Beard's Ability to Score in Clutch Situations Makes Him Invaluable

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | On Wednesday night, the Houston Rockets extended their winning streak to seven games with a 112-11 win over the Washington Wizards.

Houston trailed by two late in the game when James Harden was fouled by Trevor Ariza before the Rockets could inbound the ball. The foul resulted in one free throw (which Harden made), and Houston kept the ball.

Now trailing by one, Kevin McHale went to his best offensive player for the late-game bucket. Harden took the ball into the lane, did his famous Euro-step, then laid the ball up at the front of the rim to give Houston the win.

Washington was given the ball back with .7 seconds remaining, but they were unable to convert, allowing Houston to ride a seven-game winning streak into All-Star Weekend.

The Rockets are 36-17, good for third place in the Western Conference, percentage points ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers and tied with the Portland Trail Blazers (Houston holds a 2-1 season-series lead over the Blazers).

The Rockets are finally gelling and playing as a cohesive unit. Collectively, they have everything a winning team should have. They have a top-three center in the NBA in Dwight Howard; a top-five small forward and elite two-way player in Chandler Parsons; a yin-and-yang combination at point guard with the offensive-mind Jeremy Lin and the defensive-minded, electric lunatic (that's a compliment) Patrick Beverley; a pair of young, talented power forwards in Terrence Jones (possibly a future All-Star) and Donatas Motiejunas (a guy with a future in the NBA at the very least); And a handful of talented veterans in Omer Asik, Aaron Brooks, Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi, who lend a helping hand and provide depth.

The player I neglected to mention is Harden, a top-five scorer with some defensive problems, but before we delve into what makes Harden great, let's look at how the rest of the team has fared during their current seven-game winning streak:

Howard: 24.7 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 60% FG, 66% FT
Parsons: 14.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 50% FG, 39% 3pt
Lin: 14.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 49% FG, 39% 3pt
Beverley: 9.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals, 45% 3pt, 1.3 TO
Jones: 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 60% FG, 33% 3pt
Motiejunas: 7.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 56% FG, 44% 3pt

As you can see, everyone around Harden has been stepping up. The team has made strides in terms of being a cohesive unit, as ball movement and balance have been the team's newfound virtues.

Now, we get to The Beard.

Harden is probably the most criticized Rocket, as his lack of defensive intensity and effort drives fans crazy (myself included, and I'm one of his biggest proprietors). He oftentimes switches on high screens out of apparent laziness, choosing to allow a mismatch instead of fighting over the top and chasing down his man. Instead of stepping all the way in on penetrating point guards and wings, many times he just takes a swipe at the ball or lunges forward for a step before jumping back. When he gets beaten off the dribble, instead of sliding his feet or sprinting to back to beat his man to the spot, he tries to poke the ball out from the behind, oftentimes unsuccessfully.

If you have watched the Rockets, you've noticed Harden do all of these things over and over again, and there's really no excuse.

However, in the grand scheme of things, Harden is still worth his max-level contract for one major reason: He has a knack for putting the ball in the basket.

Harden can score in pretty much every way imaginable. He is lethal in the high-and-roll and pick-and-pop game. He's an above-average 3-point shooter. He can operate in the mid-post and the low-post, using his strength to beat smaller or weaker defenders. He's a menace in the lane, utilizing his two steps better than anyone not named Manu Ginobili. He has mastered the art of drawing fouls by holding the ball out in front of him, enticing defenders to take a swipe, which usually leads to a foul call. He is extremely creative while on the move, showing the ability to finish with a teardrop, runner, step-back or side-step, depending on where the defense is positioned.

In today's game, it's rare to see a player with such a well-rounded offensive game. What makes Harden's success even more amazing is that he lacks elite length and athleticism, two qualities almost synonymous with greatness at the NBA level, especially for guards.

The majority of complaints made about Harden's offensive abilities pertain to his propensity to go one on one with his defender in isolation sets. When Houston's offense gets a little too isolation-heavy, the team tends to go on long scoring droughts, something that they've gotten better at avoiding during their current win streak. But what many people fail to realize is that those iso sets, combined with spacing (which led to a lot of 3-point shots) drove Houston's offense last year, before Parsons became the all-around player he is today and before Howard was manning the 5-spot.

According to 82games.com, Harden scored the fifth-most points per 48 minutes in the league in "Clutch" situations (during the fourth quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, with neither team ahead by more than five points) last season. Harden averaged 43.5 points per 48 minutes in those situations, and amazingly, only 12% of his points were assisted on.

Kevin Durant averaged 50.8 points (fourth in the NBA), with 36% of his points assisted on. Carmelo Anthony, who is the isolation king, averaged 38.2 points, with 23% of his points assisted on. Essentially, this means that Harden was outstanding during crunch time, but that he was almost exclusively creating his own shot. Unlike Durant, Harden didn't have an elite point guard setting up his buckets, and unlike Chris Paul (third in the NBA with 52 points per 48 minutes), he didn't have an All-Star big man setting his high screens.

Last season, it was up to Harden to create, take, and make shots, and he did that about as well as anyone in the league.

This season, with the signing of Howard and the improvement of youngsters like Parsons, Lin, Jones and D-Mo, Harden has the luxury of leaning on his teammates, but that's not as easy as it sounds. Harden went from being the only guy on the team who could create his own shot consistently to being one of a handful, and the transition has been tough for him. At times he's looked selfish, but in reality, Harden was just acting out of reflex.

The argument can be made that no one on the Rockets has had to adjust their mode of attack more than Harden, but he's finally figuring out how to share the workload with his teammates. The results of that are clear.

With the Rockets chasing their first Western Conference crown since their magical '95 NBA Finals victory, Harden will need to continue adjusting his game as his teammates mature as offensive players.

But when it comes down to the final possession, and Houston is behind by one, and everyone's knees are just about to buckle, and the crowd's on their heels, and there's only ten seconds hanging from the clock, and everyone is soaked in sweat, Harden will have the ball in his hands.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't bet against him.

That's greatness.

M. De Moor is an NBA junkie who has followed the Rockets religiously since he was a kid. He often wonders why left-handed shooters have such pretty shooting strokes.

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