In 24 minutes of basketball, James Harden reminded everyone why he is the front-runner to win the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award this season.
Harden’s Houston Rockets withstood a 12-0 run by the Golden State Warriors to start Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday, and they went into halftime with an improbable 53-46 lead. And it was almost entirely thanks to the offensive effort of Harden, who had 24 points, none of which made more of a statement than a thundering dunk which came at the expense of Draymond Green, one of the league’s best rim protectors.
Early in the first quarter, it looked like a continuation of the second half of Game 3, where the Warriors ran up the score and looked completely at ease putting up points against Houston, while relying on the Rockets to make enough mistakes for the game to not even approach being competitive. Just under five minutes into the game, Golden State was up 12-0, Houston was 0 for 7 from the field, and Coach Mike D’Antoni called a timeout to collect his team.
It was not an immediate turnaround for the Rockets, but Harden and his teammates chipped away at the lead before exploding in the second quarter, where they had a stunning 34-18 advantage.
Golden State’s defense was undoubtedly struggling to hold up without the injured Andre Iguodala, who was out after sustaining a bone bruise in his knee in Game 3. B ut considering Green, the league’s reigning defensive player of the year, did everything in his arsenal in hopes of stopping Harden at the rim, and still ended up on the floor as the punch line in what could be a highlight for the ages, it is hard to imagine what one more defender could have done to slow down Houston’s dominant guard.
For the half, Harden shot 8 for 17 from the field, nearly scoring as much as the rest of his teammates combined. That Harden would produce such a performance is hardly surprising, but nearly all of it came after a first quarter play in which he was gifted a wide-open 3-point attempt following a turnover, and simply held onto the ball, looking far more tentative than he has at any point during Houston’s sensational season. It was the type of play that would have been replayed all off-season if he had not turned things around in the game, but he was able to change that narrative quickly with his offensive outburst.
The Warriors, who had been playing to the crowd at Oakland’s Oracle Arena in their strong stretch to start the game, has looked mildly lost without Iguodala. They have repeatedly resorted to isolation plays and a team that was known for 30-assist games last season had just six in the half, with Kevin Durant leading the team with 15 points while no other member of the Warriors has yet to top 10 points.
Golden State also dealt with a brief scare when Klay Thompson, the team’s standout two-way shooting guard, hit his knee hard on the court following a layup attempt which was blocked by Houston’s Clint Capela. Thompson went to the locker room to be evaluated, but he was able to return later in the quarter, finishing the half with 7 points on 3 of 8 shooting.
With two of the remaining three games coming in Houston, the Rockets would be at a distinct advantage if they can come out of this game with the series tied at two games apiece. But first they will have to finish off Golden State, a team that is in the middle of a record-setting 16-game playoff winning streak at home.