The NBA's 11-game Wednesday night slate was headlined by the first meeting of the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics following the death of longtime Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, but it was highlighted by a pair of sensational performances by ascending talents who, last weekend, made their first All-Star appearances.
After he was held largely in check in his first two appearances against the Oklahoma City Thunder, scoring a combined 42 points on 9 for 36 shooting with four assists and seven turnovers in a pair of blowout losses, James Harden went off against his former team on Wednesday, dropping a career-high 46 on old friends Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a 122-119 come-from-behind win that kept the Houston Rockets 3 1/2 games up on the Lakers for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, over beyond Lake Erie, Kyrie Irving was celebrating his Rising Stars shakedown and Three-Point Contest win by dominating the New Orleans Hornets, scoring a game-high 35 points to lead his Cleveland Cavaliers to a nationally televised 105-100 win.
Each performance was instrumental in delivering a big win on Wednesday, but which young star guard's outing was best? Let's take a look at each and bat the question around after the jump.
With the young, tight-knit Rockets reeling following the pregame trade of teammates Cole Aldrich, Patrick Patterson, Toney Douglas and Marcus Morris — four of seven players swapped in a three-team deal that took place about 20 minutes before tipoff — Harden took it upon himself to rally his short-handed squad, demanding focus and effort in a matchup with the Northwest Division-leading Thunder. He made his first four shots (all 3-pointers) and dished three dimes to go with his 14 first-quarter points as Houston hung 36 on OKC in the opening frame to take a seven-point lead into the second.
Predictably, the Thunder roared back in the second to hold a five-point lead at half, but Harden — and, credit where it's due, Jeremy Lin, who finished with 29 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals in 42 minutes — wouldn't let OKC run away and hide, calmly draining a half-court heave at the third-quarter buzzer to keep the Rockets within five heading into the fourth. And after Oklahoma City ripped off a 15-6 run to open up a 14-point lead with just over seven minutes left, Harden once again sparked his team, scoring 14 points by himself over those last seven minutes as Houston blew the doors off the Thunder defense, outscoring Scott Brooks' team 29-12 down the stretch to earn arguably the Rockets' best win of the season.
With a combination of his customary, almost-stunningly-easy drives to the basket or easy, in-rhythm stepback jumpers over the outstretched arms of defenders like Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, Harden piled up 16 fourth-quarter points on 5 for 7 shooting and 5 for 5 from the line in the fourth quarter to finish with 46 on 14 for 19 shooting, including 7 for 8 from long range and 11 of 12 from the line — his second 40-plus-point performance of the season and the second-highest total in the NBA this year. After the game, Harden's backcourt partner and head coach couldn't help but gush over his play, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
“If he is not up for MVP consideration, I mean, I don’t know what else he needs to do,” Jeremy Lin said. “Forty-six points on 19 shots. I mean, he made every single big play down the stretch, and even the shots that I was able to have, they were created because of him. Man, he played phenomenal.” [...]
“He’s a phenomenal offensive force,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “He can drive it. He’s got the ability to shoot it. He’s got the ability to beat you off the bounce. I think he’s almost unguardable off the catch. His first step is so deceptively fast and strong, and he changes direction. When he plays off the catch, I just think he’s absolutely as good as it gets.”
"As good as it gets" is a phrase that's becoming more and more frequently associated with Irving, too. The Cavaliers' 20-year-old stud point guard has developed a real penchant for taking over games in the fourth quarter, as he showed against the Hornets:
Twenty of Irving's 35 points came in the final frame on Wednesday night, on 6 for 9 shooting and 7 for 7 from the free-throw line; he also grabbed a pair of rebounds and didn't turn it over (no Cav did in the fourth, as a matter of fact), sparking an 11-0 run that turned the game in Cleveland's favor and send New Orleans home with a loss despite having six players in double-figures because, as Irving's coach said, "They really didn't have an answer for" the 2011 draft's No. 1 pick. From Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
"You can kind of see it coming," said Cavs coach Byron Scott. "He gets a little bit of a gleam in his eye. He hits one or two, and he kind of gets going. You could see in the fourth quarter, he was just really aggressive. I thought he did a great job of getting himself some space, getting to the basket, finishing, making shots. He just kind of put us on his back."
Scott figures reporters can stop asking Irving about fatigue now.
"I think he's all right," the coach said as the Cavs improved to 17-37. "I don't think he's that tired."
Irving came into the game as the fourth-leading scorer in the league in the fourth quarter, averaging 6.7 points, and the second-leading clutch scorer in the NBA behind Kevin Durant — and he only enhanced that reputation Wednesday.
"Luckily, some shots went in for me," Irving said.
Luck might have had something to do with it, sure. But as you watch the variety of ways in which Irving imposed his will on the game — posting up New Orleans reserve guard Brian Roberts and hitting him with a baseline spin for an and-one floater, shaking larger wing defender Al-Farouq Aminu on the perimeter to get to the cup, pushing the pace in transition after grabbing the defensive rebound himself, fearlessly popping an open 3 trailing on the break, and showcasing that ankle-breaking handle to get around seemingly any Hornets defender whenever he wanted — you start thinking it's probably got a lot more to do with a star being born right before our eyes.
Irving now leads the league in total points scored in the "clutch" — the final five minutes of a game where the margin is within five points — this season and is second only to Durant in "clutch" points per game. He's now averaging 34.7 points per 36 minutes of fourth-quarter play this season, shooting just under 45 percent from the floor in last stanzas, and taking a whopping 11.7 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes in the fourth. He's an absolute killer down the stretch, and if you don't believe me, just ask the Hornets, who watched him get all 20 of those points in the last seven minutes, scoring 11 straight an 18 of his team's 20 points during one stretch.
That's right — Kyrie outscored Harden in the fourth quarter in five fewer minutes of playing time. Then again, Kyrie was playing the Hornets' fourth-worst-in-the-NBA defense, while Harden got loose against OKC's eighth-ranked unit. Then again, Harden had a scoring partner to play off in Lin, while Kyrie did his damage all by his lonesome. The pure numbers say Harden's 46 was a more impressive feat, but given the context and the weapons at his disposal, you can make an pretty strong argument for Kyrie.
Video via our friends at the National Basketball Association.