-- If James Harden ends up winning the MVP award, Saturday night's demolition of the New York Knicks probably will stand as his signature moment. Though the Houston Rockets have 47 more games, it's hard to fathom Harden playing any better. Even if you concede that there will surely be more important games than one in December against a fringe East playoff team, there won't be another jaw-dropping performance quite like that 53-point, 17-assist, 16-rebound clinic.
How does it stack up to some of the other great nights so far this season? Let's rank the top five performances after two months.
In addition to finishing with more than twice as many rebounds as any other player on his team, Harden scored or assisted on 95 of his team's points. Only once in NBA history has a player scored or assisted on more of his team's points and it led to perhaps the most famous photo in NBA history.
Entering Saturday, Harden's first three games of the week registered an average game score of 28.8, which would have been enough on its own to win the week in our player rankings. It's probably not a surprise then that Harden's game on Saturday propelled him to an average game score of 33.8 -- the best week any player has had this season.
1. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/topics/sports/basketball/james-harden.htm" class="r_lapi">James Harden</a> | <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/game?gameId=400899946">Dec. 31 vs. Knicks</a>
It's actually somewhat incredible that Harden's night came out as the best in a season that has seen no shortage of big nights. While there's obviously more to defense than blocks and steals, they factor in to game score and Harden didn't tally a single one. Had he had an average game in terms of blocks and steals, it would have bumped his score nearly two points. Game score also harshly punishes turnovers, deducting a whole point for every turnover. Considering Harden had eight of them, it resulted in yet another massive hit to what otherwise would have stood among the very best games in recent NBA history.
Basketball-Reference.com's game scores date to 1983-84. And over that span, Harden's game rates as the 24th best. If you remove the blocks, steals and turnovers weights from all games, Harden's jumps to being the fifth best and the top mark since Kobe Bryant's 81-point game.
But while 24th best since 1983-84 might not seem all that impressive on the surface, consider the entire careers that have spanned the era. LeBron James?--?voted the third-best player in NBA history by ESPN's #NBArank project?--?has had only one game that rates better, and? Michael Jordan?--?voted No. 1 -- had only five better games. Harden's career night was better than any game ever posted by Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, and inner-circle Hall-of-Famers Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and David Robinson each had only one game that rated better.
If it ends up being the premier feather in Harden's MVP cap, it's also worth pointing out that it will go down as one of the best games by an eventual MVP. Since our 1983-84 cutoff, only three players that went on to win the MVP -- Michael Jordan in 1987-88, Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-00 and Stephen Curry last season -- posted better game scores than Harden.
2. <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/player/_/id/6583/anthony-davis">Anthony Davis</a> | <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/game?gameId=400899388">Oct. 26 vs. Nuggets</a>
Game Score: 46.5
Before Saturday, the game of the season belonged to Davis, who did a lot of everything on opening night. Comparing Davis' performance to Harden's sheds light on how game score rewards different facets of the game.
Though he finished with 12 fewer assists, Davis filled up the box score in other ways that Harden did not. He finished with seven steals and four blocks, and also turned it over five fewer times, which all together represents a nearly 15-point swing compared to Harden's game. Had Davis finished with the same number of points as Harden (he scored 50), he actually would have finished with a higher game score and would still hold the title for our best game of the season.
Perhaps the most remarkable component of Davis' effort in his season opener is that it wasn't even close to the best game of his career. While his gem from October rates as the 51st best, his 59-point, 20-rebound effort against the Pistons last season registered a game score of 53.9, sixth best in the Basketball-Reference data set. Considering he managed only a single block with no steals, Davis could have very easily threatened Michael Jordan's record game score of 64.6.
3. <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/player/_/id/6475/klay-thompson">Klay Thompson</a> | <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/game?gameId=400899756">Dec. 5 vs. Pacers</a>
Game Score: 46.2
Thompson's spectacular shooting flurry -- 60 points in 29 minutes -- rates as perhaps the most one dimensional of the historically dominant performances. Ranked as the 53rd best, Thompson's cheat-code evening against the Pacers is the only one among the top 100 in which a player finished with two or fewer rebounds and two or fewer assists. He also managed no steals, blocks or turnovers, the second of the top 100 (along with Carmelo Anthony's 62-point game in January 2014) to finish with a trio of doughnuts in those three categories.
Of the 19 60-point games within the top 100 game scores since 1983-84, Thompson's 46.2 ranked 16th, one spot ahead of Bernard King's Christmas Day barrage in 1984. It's the ultimate testament to Thompson's unique ability to get hotter than perhaps any player that he can play fewer than 30 minutes and do almost nothing except catch-and-shoot and still dominate.
No modern player is a manifestation of NBA Jam's "He's On Fire" rule more than Thompson.
4. <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/player/_/id/6472/isaiah-thomas">Isaiah Thomas</a> | <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/game?gameId=400899866">Dec. 20 at Grizzlies</a>
Game Score: 43.2
If I told you that Isaiah Thomas had the fourth-best game of the season, you might nod your head while acknowledging his 52-point outburst on Friday that included a ridiculous 29 points in the fourth quarter, the most points scored in any quarter in Celtics history. When Larry Bird and Kevin McHale are the only players in Boston's star-studded lore to score more points in a game, you've done something right.
And yet that doesn't even rate as Thomas' best game of the season. According to game score, that would be his 44-point game against Memphis on Dec. 20. Compared to the aforementioned big night on Friday, the 44-point gem included more rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, along with a better shooting percentage, more free throws without a miss, fewer turnovers and fewer personal fouls.
Every single item that factors into game score besides total points shows Thomas' Dec. 20 game is the superior of the two and also stands as a good example where game score can provide some illumination on rating individual performance on a game level.
5. <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/player/_/id/4258/demarcus-cousins">DeMarcus Cousins</a> | <a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/game?gameId=400899870">Dec. 20 vs. Trail Blazers</a>
Game Score: 42.9
Rounding out our top five performances of the season is Cousins, who on the same night that Thomas went wild against Memphis had his own night to remember against Portland. Though game score unfortunately doesn't factor in the unintentional launching of mouthpieces, it did come to the conclusion that not only was this the best game of his career, it was the best game by any Kings player over the last 30-plus years. It's the second time in 2016 that Cousins posted a game score of at least 40, something that all other Kings players since 1983 had combined to do once previously ( Chris Webber's 51-point, 26-rebound game back in 2001).
In a season defined by incredible individual performances, these have been the best ones so far as we enter 2017. Not only does Harden have the best game of the season, he's also the only player with two of the top 10 games in 2016-17. Perhaps not much of a surprise then that on the heels of his finest hour, it's Harden who now sits atop our season-long leaderboard, displacing Russell Westbrook, whose reign in the top spot lasted only a single week after he passed Davis last week.
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