James Harden is a dominant offensive player and one of the NBA MVP favorites this season. However, the Houston Rockets superstar is not especially known for his athleticism. While Harden is no slouch when it comes to running and leaping, he’s a force because of how he uses space and baits defenders into making mistakes. The quintessential Harden play involves loping strides (and probably some contact), not incredible straight-line speed or a ferocious dunk.
That was not the case for his game-winning lay-up in the final seconds of Monday night’s home game against the Denver Nuggets. Down 124-123, the Rockets got a break when Denver point guard Jameer Nelson — yes, he plays in the final minute for a team would be in the playoffs if the season ended right now — airballed a jumper. Harden grabbed the rebound with six seconds on the clock, and four ticks later he had sprinted ahead of everyone for an easy game-winner at the other end:
After the game, Harden seemed as surprised as anyone when he said he compared himself to legendary sprinter Usain Bolt:
— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) March 21, 2017
OK, maybe Harden wasn’t that fast. But his speedy move to the hoop in Houston’s 125-124 win was impressive nonetheless.
A post shared by Ball Don't Lie (@yahooballdontlie) on Mar 21, 2017 at 7:51am PDT
It was also just the last bucket of another excellent night for the Rockets star. Harden finished with 39 points (13-of-29 FG, 4-of-11 3FG, 9-of-11 FT), 11 assists, seven rebounds, and four steals in a game where all nine Rockets who saw the court scored at least five points (with six, including Harden, in double figures). The Rockets’ offense continues to be as dangerous as any in the league, and Harden’s ability to put up such incredible stats while amplifying others’ success is the biggest reason he’s such a strong MVP candidate. (Houston’s 49-22 record doesn’t hurt, either.)
The loss is a bad one for the Nuggets both in terms of the finish and its impact on the standings. At 33-27, Denver is now only a half-game ahead of the surging Portland Trail Blazers in the race for the Western Conference’s final playoff berth. The Nuggets have won seven of their last 11 and aren’t exactly fading, but a loss to the Blazers on March 28 would result in a lost tiebreaker and open up new ways to fall into the lottery. Denver is ostensibly rebuilding and could consider this season a good one without participating in the postseason, but staying at No. 8 would certainly mean something and help them attract free agents this offseason.
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