James Harden had 35 points in a big win at Toronto the other night, and his scoring average went down. He’s putting up numbers we haven’t seen since Michael Jordan’s tongue was slobbering all over the NBA.
Harden is leading the league in scoring by 8.1 points over Paul George entering Thursday, an astounding margin in what could be the most lopsided race in 56 years, since Wilt averaged 50. Harden has scored 40 or more points in a game 24 times. The next closest (Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Paul George) have done so seven times.
With the Sixers set to face Harden one final time this season on Friday (8 p.m., NBCSP) — at least until possibly June — here’s a look at the Rockets scoring machine.
The Sixers have beaten Harden and the Rockets the last two times they’ve played. The meeting earlier this season was a relatively easy win despite Harden’s 37 points. The Sixers did not have defensive whiz Jimmy Butler (wrist) that night, which makes Friday’s game even more interesting.
Joel Embiid dominated the paint in that 28-point Sixers win in January. Embiid has missed the last seven games with left knee tendinitis.
In 17 career games, many while the Process dragged painfully along, Harden’s teams have gone 14-3 against Philly. He had 51 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in a 2017 meeting, and he’s averaged 27.7 points, 6.4 boards and 6.1 dimes. His career field-goal shooting percentage against the 76ers is 47.2.
“How you guard James [Harden] keeps every coach up late at night,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said in January. “Not many have been able to figure it out.”
In his career, Harden is a 44 percent shooter. But in games against Butler’s teams since Butler became a full-time NBA starter in 2013, Harden’s field-goal accuracy is 38.1 percent. Harden’s Rockets were just 3-4 in head-to-head meetings when Butler was with the Bulls.
In three games last year against Butler with Minnesota, Harden shot just 35.0 percent. Houston, the eventual No. 1 seed in the West, won them all. He was shooting 6-for-20 (30 percent) during the Feb. 23 game when Butler went down with a knee injury. Harden visited with him afterward. Butler would miss the next 17 games.
The Timberwolves went 8-9 without Butler and nearly missed the playoffs. They won their final three games with Butler back in the lineup, including an overtime win over Denver that secured the conference’s final playoff spot.
Minnesota didn’t have the horses to run with the top-seeded Rockets and was bounced in five games. Harden averaged 29.0 in the series, but shot just 41.1 percent. That dismal showing is a big reason Butler is with the Sixers today.
The highest single-season scoring averages in the last 57 years:
1. Wilt Chamberlain, 1961-62: 50.36
2. Wilt Chamberlain, 1962-63: 44.83
3. Michael Jordan, 1986-87: 37.09
4. Wilt Chamberlain, 1963-64: 36.85
5. James Harden, 2018-19: 36.65
6. Rick Barry, 1966-67: 35.58
7. Kobe Bryant, 2005-06: 35.40
Harden made a bid for his second consecutive MVP — especially during that two-week stretch in January when he averaged 48 — but the award is likely going to go to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook haw Antetokounmpo as a heavy 2-5 favorite. Harden was at 7-4, while George came in at 9-1.
Milwaukee is 48-16 and atop the Eastern Conference. Houston, which has won six in a row, is 39-25 and third in the West entering Thursday.
“The Bucks record will play into the MVP voting,” said Jeff Sherman, sportbook manager for Westgate.
Harden last year became Houston’s first MVP since Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94). Antetokounmpo likely will become Milwaukee’s first MVP since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his third with the Bucks in 1973-74. Pretty good company.
Age: 29. Born: Aug. 26, 1989 in Los Angeles.
Position: Shooting guard. Occasionally plays point guard.
Shoots: Left. College: Arizona State.
Drafted: No. 3 overall by Oklahoma City in 2009.
Traded: To Houston just before the 2012-13 season.
* Came off the bench as a rookie, which he confessed was a humbling time. “Third overall pick, I was coming in, thought I was going to be a starter,” he said. “I had to take a back seat and pull the bench.”
* Raised by his mom, Monja, who had two miscarriages before the birth of her youngest son, according to the Oklahoman. She nicknamed James, who has worn the No. 13 since high school, “Lucky.”
* Clippers forward Matt Barnes yelled vulgarities at Harden’s mom during a 2015 playoff game. He quickly apologized, but was fined $50,000.
* Once dated one of the Kardashian sisters, but that’s an item for another part of the website.
* Has 41 career triple-doubles, including six this season.
* Could have come out of Arizona State after his freshman year, but conceded he wasn’t ready. He also wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament. Was held to just 1-for-8 from the field in a 2009 first-round win over Temple and just 2-for-10 in a loss to Syracuse. Went to the NBA after his sophomore season.
* If there’s one hole in his game, it’s defense. He doesn’t play a lot of it. But he led Artesia High in charges taken as a freshman and sophomore and led the Pac-12 in steals as a freshman, not that steals are the greatest metric for defense.
* Leads the league in turnovers, as well. And by a wide margin. Harden has 314. Russell Westbrook is next with 262. After them are Trae Young (261) and Ben Simmons (228).
* Other categories in which Harden leads the NBA: points, points per game, field goals, three-point field goals, free throws both made and attempted, and minutes per game.
*Harden is signed through 2022-23 and has a base salary of $30.4 million this season, according to Spotrac.com. He will get $37.8 million next season and $40.8, $43.8 and $46.8 million in three seasons from 2020-23.