OAKLAND, Calif. - James Harden repeatedly flashed two fingers in the moments after he led the Houston Rockets to a come-from-behind, 135-134 overtime win over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, the reigning MVP's most recent statement about his plans to claim that award again.
This historic run by Harden, which continued with a 44-point, 10-rebound, 15-assist performance that he capped by drilling a 29-foot game-winner over two defenders, has some in the Rockets' organization thinking of Harden's greatness in a bigger context.
"You could argue for him as the best offensive player of all time," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told ESPN. "To be able to say that with a straight face, and not have it be GM speak or coach speak, is pretty amazing. There's a whole bunch of ways to measure it, but he's for sure in the conversation as the greatest offensive player ever."
Harden, who is leading the NBA with a career-high 33.6 points per game, is unquestionably in the midst of one of the most spectacular offensive stretches in recent NBA history. He has scored at least 40 points in five consecutive games, joining Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson as the only players to have such streaks in the last 50 years.
Harden has record at least 35 points and 5 assists in Houston's last nine games. Oscar Robertson previously held the NBA record for most consecutive 35-point, 5-assist outings at seven games.
"He's at a level that almost nobody in NBA history has been at," Morey said. "We're obviously focused on April and beyond, but it's special to watch right now."
The Rockets have soared from 14th to fourth place in the Western Conference standings by winning 11 of their last 12 games despite co-star Chris Paul missing the last six games (all victories) due to a strained hamstring. Harden has averaged 40.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 9.0 assists during Houston's 11-1 hot streak.
"His confidence in himself is inspiring, really," Rockets guard Austin Rivers said. "Everybody else just feeds off of it. I mean, even Steph [Curry] during the game was like, 'Dude, what he's doing right now is crazy.' Dudes know what he's doing is legendary."
Harden described his confidence as being "through the roof," adding that it's been that way for some time now. And it's contagious.
"He's so special," said Houston center Clint Capela, who had a career-high-tying 29 points and 21 rebounds. "To me, I feel like because of him I got to the next level, too. You see a guy like that every day go that hard, it just gives me so much energy."
The Warriors managed to disrupt Harden's rhythm for a little more than a half, holding him to 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting in the first two quarters. Golden State led by 20 a minute into the second half, but Harden dominated the remainder of the quarter to get the Rockets within striking distance, contributing 13 points and 6 assists to Houston's 39-point frame.
Harden scored only 5 points in the fourth quarter, but he swished a 30-foot stepback to tie the score with 51.4 seconds remaining. The game went into overtime after Harden missed a 32-footer in the final seconds.
Harden scored 11 points in overtime, going 3-of-4 from 3-point range. The game-winner was a 29-foot pullup that Harden made despite being tightly contested by Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
"He made an impossible shot at the end and just an incredible performance," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "Give him all the credit he deserves."
The Warriors were relatively successful with their top priority of defending Harden, which was to limit his trips to the free throw line . Harden was 8-of-9 from the line, shooting two fewer free throws than he averages per game and one third of the franchise-record-tying 27 he attempted during his 43-point, 10-rebound, 13-assist performance in Houston's previous game, a 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Warriors, however, couldn't prevent Harden from launching a career-high 23 3-pointers, one shy of Thompson's NBA record of 24. Harden made 10 3s, most of which were high-degree-of-difficulty stepbacks, a shot he has developed into arguably the league's most devastating weapon.
"You don't. You can't," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said when asked how Harden could be defended when he's hitting his stepback. "Might as well give up. You can't. Can't guard him. Unless you foul and they don't call it. That'd be the only way."
Harden, who was named Western Conference Player of the Month earlier in the day, has gotten sick and tired of hearing complaints about all the whistles that are blown in his favor. He suggests that fans and media should appreciate his unique skill set in the midst of the most prolific stretch of his career.
"I've got the total package," Harden said. "I get to the basket aggressive and I shoot my shot. Don't foul me on my jump shot and then we won't have nothing to talk about. It's simple as that.
"(People) talk too much about my fouls and not actually the greatness of what I'm doing out there on the court. That's what we need to focus on."