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Article written by Zach Zola (@ZachZola1)
I think it’s fair to say that us Houston fans need a little joy in our lives right now.
After a week filled with disappointing playoff losses, looming questions about the future, and the fallout from the plight of Little Danuel, the Rockets have not done much to inspire confidence as we move into the offseason.
But with the next NBA season not expected to resume until at least Christmas, there’s no better time than now to look back at some of the good in recent Rockets history.
Almost 8 years ago, GM Daryl Morey made a trade that would completely alter the direction of the Rockets franchise:
Since then, the Rockets have made the playoffs 8 straight seasons – something that no other team can say. In that time, we have watched James Harden blossom before our eyes and emerge as a perennial MVP candidate. He has made the team competitive each and every season, and has gotten the Rockets closer to a championship than anyone has since Hakeem Olajuwon.
Even though he is routinely criticized on a daily basis by the media and #NBATwitter alike, we know that there has never been – nor ever will be – a player quite like James. It has been awesome to watch him these past 8 years, and I’m excited to see how he’ll continue to improve in the future.
In the meantime, let’s look back at James Harden’s top 10 moments as a member of the Houston Rockets.
Honorable Mention: The Side Eye
10) The First Two Games
When the Rockets traded for Harden, no one really knew what to expect. We knew that Harden was a great young player, but we also knew that he was a sixth man. How would he react when asked to be the star?
The answer? Like this:
Harden wasted no time getting comfortable in his new uniform, leading the motley crew of Greg Smith, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons to a comeback win over the Pistons. He dropped 37 points and 12 assists, getting whatever he wanted every time down the court. This was the first time in NBA history that a player recorded a 30 point double-double in a debut. The next night, he followed it up with a then-career-high 45 points against the Hawks. Shrug.
I will always remember the excitement I felt watching these first two games. After four straight years of being trapped in the worst type of mediocrity, Harden brought to the Rockets a level of star power that they hadn’t seen since Tracy McGrady. Harden would eventually speed past McGrady’s legacy, but – at the time – this debut marked a turnaround point that the Rockets would never look back from.
9) Harden Strikes Back
James Harden is one of the more reserved stars in the NBA. He’s not quiet like Kawhi, but he’s typically been unlikely to say anything crazy off-court.
After years of taking crap from fans, media members, and some other players (for reasons I will continue to never understand), though, Harden finally decided to let someone else have it for a change:
This interview was the result of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s random Harden slander from before and after the 2020 All-Star Game.
Even if this was likely a pretty big hyperbole from Harden, I could not care less. It deserves a spot on this list. This was easily one of the most fist-pump worthy moments as a Rockets fan, getting to see Harden flip the script for once.
8) Takeover vs Grizzlies
This was the type of game that you disgustedly turn off mid 4th quarter, then have to do a double take when you see the score 10 minutes later.
Down 16 points with six minutes left in regulation, and down 6 points with 46 seconds left in overtime, Harden decided to go nuclear not once, but twice.
I can do no justice describing the ridiculousness of these comebacks, so I highly encourage you to watch the clip above if you haven’t seen it already. We have often seen Harden get doubled or defer to teammates in late game spots, so this takeover was a welcome sight to fans who had been wanting to see Harden elevate with the game on the line.
He ended up scoring 25 points from mid-4th quarter through OT, adding up to 57 total for the game – just shy of his career high. The Grizzlies would eventually get bailed out on a last second foul call, but not even the staunchest of Harden haters could have anything bad to say about this otherworldly performance.
7) The Streak
Harden’s 2019 was on another level.
With injuries to Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, Harden was pretty much forced to shoulder the load throughout much of the regular season. He responded by scoring 30 points or more in 32 straight games, the longest streak of that nature since Wilt Chamberlain.
A 50-point triple-double against LeBron’s Lakers:
A 40-point game in a big Christmas win over future teammate Russell Westbrook:
A 40-point triple-double in just 29 (!!) minutes:
A trip to MSG that ended in 61 points and 15 rebounds against the NY Knicks:
Harden led the Rockets to a 21-11 record over the stretch, helping catapult them to one of the top seeds in the Western Conference.
Keep an eye out later on this list for one more game from this streak….
6) The Legacy of Lu Dort Comes to an End
In the First Round this year, the Rockets found themselves stuck in a Game 7 against the Thunder. This game meant everything to the Rockets – losing to a Chris Paul-led Thunder team would have been a stain on Harden and the Rockets’ legacy that they likely would have never been able to recover from.
In Game 7, undrafted Rookie Lu Dort – who had played masterful defense on Harden throughout the series – decided to take over on the offensive side of the ball. He scored 30 points on 50% from three and looked absolutely unstoppable from behind the arc.
That is, until this:
Harden, who was struggling throughout the game, salvaged the season and his own legacy with this series-winning block. It was a moment of elation for Rockets fans, who had been dying to see Harden have a big time Playoff moment.
The fact that it came on the defensive end made it all the more sweeter.
5) Playoff Career High
Let’s be clear. The Rockets were never actually going to win this 2015 series against the Warriors. They were coming off the heels of a ridiculous 3-1 comeback against the Clippers in Round 2, and were now going up against a stacked Warriors team while playing Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni major minutes due to injuries.
Harden had done herculean things to lift the Rockets to the WCF, but there was really no reason to expect the run to continue.
What Harden could do, however, was avoid a sweep. It took all his power – a 45 point playoff career high – but Harden was able to hand the Warriors a loss in Game 4. He put an exclamation point on his all-time performance with a stepback dagger over Andre Iguodala:
4) Playoff Game Winner
2016 was a season that most Rockets fans – myself included – would prefer to forget. It stared with a lot of hope after the Rockets brought back most of the same roster from 2015’s overachievement AND traded for Ty Lawson, but it ended with a 41-41 record and many questions for the season ahead.
Still, though, the Rockets found themselves in the 8-seed, matched up with the 73-9 Warriors. And in Game 3, Harden did this:
Down 1 in the final seconds of a playoff game against one of the greatest teams ever assembled?
No problem for Harden.
He seemed to be one of the only Rockets players actually trying during this series, and it was awesome to see him rewarded for his efforts with a slick game-winning jump shot.
If you’ve been on Rockets Twitter recently, you’ve probably seen a lot of people clamoring for Harden to bring the midrange shot back to his arsenal. This game is a big reason why. We know just how much he’s capable of from that spot.
3) Harden Beats Warriors…Again
That picture belongs in a museum.
Part of the aforementioned 30-point streak, this was likely one of the craziest games any of us will ever see. A back and forth battle filled with a high scoring overtime period and some insane refereeing, Harden finished off his virtuoso performance with a buzzer beater for the ages.
Man, I could watch that 1000 times.
This was a game in which the Rockets were without Chris Paul and going against a team of 4 All-Stars. They had no business going into Oracle and stealing one. Harden, however, put the team on his back, making shot after shot to lead the Rockets to victory.
Capped by an absolutely insane game winner and an awesome call by Kevin Harlan, this win catapulted the Rockets forward in the standings and helped keep Harden’s 30-point streak alive.
Let’s watch it one more time:
2) Early Funeral for Wesley Johnson
The game itself might have been relatively unimportant, but the highlight is already being edited for Harden’s Hall of Fame reel.
Harden crosses over Wesley Johnson, who then falls to the ground about ten feet away from the play. Harden then STARES DOWN Johnson for what feels like an eternity before hitting the stepback 3 in his face. One of the most disrespectful moves in NBA history. Period.
Even though we didn’t need it, this was just more proof that nobody on Earth can guard James Harden when he’s feeling it.
To make it even more legendary, Harden literally licks his lips before taking the shot:
1) Harden (finally) Wins MVP
It may have taken awhile, but, in 2018, Harden finally got the MVP that he had been missing out on for so many years.
For the season, Harden averaged 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds while leading the Rockets to a franchise-best record and 1st place in the Western Conference at 65-17. He was as deserving of a candidate as there’s ever been, and it was a welcome sight for Rockets fans who knew that he deserved one long beforehand.
(No, I don’t care that Russell Westbrook is on the Rockets now. Give us back that 2017 trophy)
For his career, Harden has finished in the Top 3 in MVP Voting in 5 of the last 6 years. He has firmly cemented his place among the league’s best, and his MVP win in 2018 allowed him to take the stage on top of the basketball world.
For all the criticism Harden has faced in his career, his greatness in this moment was undeniable.
As a Rockets fan, I have been proud to root for and watch Harden play basketball each and every night. He has changed the game completely, and has consistently dominated the offensive end of the court at a level never before seen in the modern era.
Time will tell if Harden can get that elusive championship ring with the Houston Rockets, but, in the meantime, we’ve all been lucky to get to watch the journey.
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