Can James Harden surpass Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game?
On this day 13 years ago, Kobe Bryant poured in 81 points in a Los Angeles Lakers win over the Toronto Raptors, marking the second-highest single-game point total in NBA history (only Wilt Chamberlain scored more with an 100-point game back in 1962).
Bryant made 28 of his 46 field-goal attempts in his scintillating performance, burying seven three-pointers and going 18-of-20 from the free-throw line in what was an oddly efficient outing for a not-so-efficient scorer in Bryant.
The closest anyone has gotten to Bryant’s 81-point game since then was Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, who dropped 70 points in a loss to the Boston Celtics in March 2017. If there is anyone currently in the NBA who can surpass Bryant’s 2006 explosion, it’s Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker.
Okay. That was obviously a joke, but the candidate is a teammate of Tucker’s. That player is James Harden.
Harden has been on a historic run as of late, racking up 20 consecutive 30-point games and scoring 40 or more points 12 times and 50 or more three times during that span.
The 28-year-old actually had back-to-back 50-point performances last week, pouring in 57 and 58 against the Memphis Grizzlies and the Brooklyn Nets, respectively.
In the month of January, Harden is averaging 43.7 points per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the floor, 35.9 percent from three-point range and 90.2 percent from the free-throw line.
He is also getting to the charity stripe 13.3 times a night this month.
Overall this season, Harden is registering 35.7 points per game, which is nearly identical to the 35.4 points Bryant averaged during the 2005-06 campaign in which he logged the 81-point outing.
Scoring 81 or more points is not just some pie-in-the-sky goal for Harden; it’s a realistic possibility.
Harden’s career high is 60, which he posted in a win over the Orlando Magic last January.
For a guy who can get to the free-throw line 20 times on any given night, 81 is not an impossible challenge. As a matter of fact, Harden took 23 foul shots during his 58-point performance against the Nets, and on New Year’s Eve, he racked up 27 free-throw attempts as part of a 43-point outing against the Grizzlies.
As frustrating as it can be to watch Harden as an opposing fan, the man knows how to draw contact. You can bemoan the league for allowing James Harden to get those calls all you want, but he is inducing fouls, whether you like it or not.
Also, while Harden is not exactly Stephen Curry from three-point range, he is someone who can get his shot off at almost any time, as evidenced by the fact that he is averaging 17 long-distance attempts per game this month.
Given that Harden has a penchant for getting hot and going on scoring binges, it is entirely plausible that he could have a night where he goes 14-for-20 from three-point range or something crazy like that. That’s 42 points right there, not even taking into account all of his layups and dunks or how many fouls he would draw.
Harden has a stepback move that is probably the best we have ever seen, allowing him to create space against any defender any time. That results in him getting more clean looks from downtown than the average player, which can absolutely turn into a three-point barrage if he is feeling it.
You can sit there and knock Harden’s shot selection, but this season, he owns a true-shooting percentage of 62.2 percent and an effective field-goal percentage of 54.5 percent, both his best marks since his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.
This is not Russell Westbrook we are talking about here. No disrespect to Westbrook, but he takes a lot of shots and doesn’t have the shooting touch to back it up. Harden, on the other hand, can not only hit triples at a rather consistent rate, but he also lives at the free-throw line.
So, criticize James Harden for his insanely high usage if you want to, but he is actually making his field-goal attempts count. Yeah, I understand the argument about it not really being a good thing for the rest of the team, as evidenced by Houston’s struggles of late, but the Rockets also have a ton of injuries right now, and that’s not even what this is about.
We are strictly talking about Harden as a scorer and his potential to break Bryant’s 81-point mark.
Outside of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Harden is probably the most hated player in the league. Not just by fans, but by his peers. How many times have we heard players complaining about Harden’s style of play?
But we need to give the dude his props.
We are witnessing one of the greatest scoring displays in the modern era of basketball. Harden isn’t scoring 50 while going 15-for-40. He is making threes and he is getting to the free-throw line, resulting in respectable percentages and great efficiency across the board.
There could very well come a day this year where James Harden seriously threatens Bryant’s 2006 masterpiece.
And no one is going to like it.
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