For much of the season thus far, the media and fans alike spent time salivating over the numbers of superstars Kevin Durant and LeBron James–and rightfully so. The small forwards are widely-regarded as the league’s top two players, and formed a friendly rivalry as the “who’s better?” talks and MVP conversations heat up.
Due to all the chatter, other premier players have been overlooked. James Harden is one of those players. The bearded-baller may get off off to a slow start but consistently ranks as one of the league’s best performers year-round. More specifically, it appears Harden takes his game to another level once the calendar turns to February.
In the 2012-2013 campaign, Harden averaged 28.7 points in the ten games played in the month, shooting 52.9 percent from the field and 49.3 percent from three-point range–all season-highs by month (excluding the one game played in October). This season, it was much of the same for the 25-year-old. In the Houston Rockets’ ten February games, Harden led his team to eight wins while scoring 27.9 points, shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from beyond the arc. Again, all season-highs by month.
At first glance, the rise in Harden’s numbers may seem peculiar, but it does make sense. Despite averaging 38 minutes per game this past February–his lowest average of the season; he managed to score more by receiving the ball more… simple, right?–His usage percentage (percentage of a team’s offensive possessions a player uses while on the court) was a team-leading 28.4, his highest mark of the season.
Yet, the key point is that Harden is scoring the basketball at a more efficient pace as well. Sure, he can get more touches, but if he’s making insignificant use out of it, then the extra time with the ball in his hands won’t do any good for him or his team. While on the court, the shooting guard scored 30.5 percent of his team’s points in February, higher than the percentage of players such as Paul George, Stephen Curry and Dirk Nowitzki.
Harden also became more aggressive in February. Rather than solely settling for midrange or long-range shots, he instead drove to the basket, thus shooting the ball more efficiently or just picking up fouls and getting sent to the free throw line, where he shot 90.4 percent, the best of his career.
In the month’s 28 days, Harden took 73 shots from closer than eight feet. Despite playing four more games in January, he managed to take just 67 shots from the same distance.
Still, Harden took his fair share of deep shots—they just went in at a higher percentage than in other months. A reason for this was the lackluster defense of the Rockets’ competitors during February. Out of their nine different opponents during the stretch, eight of them place among the bottom-15 in points allowed per game, while six of them rank among the same tier in opponents’ field goal percentage. Simply put, Harden was playing against poor defenses for much of the month, and took advantage of games star players should take advantage of but not all do.
Harden also showed up when it counted most: in the clutch. In games within five points (either ahead or behind) inside five minutes left, Harden averaged 4.4 points, which ranked among the top-ten in the league in February, while shooting 60 percent from the field. On Wednesday, February 12 against the Washington Wizards, Harden scored 35 points on 8-of-14 shooting, going 16-of-16 from the charity stripe. He finished off the comeback with a game-winning contested layup after sinking a free throw to bring his team within one point:
In the next few games, Harden continued to dazzle. He scored 39 points and added five rebounds and four steals against the Golden State Warriors on February 20, before erupting for 43 points–through three quarters–in Houston’s 129-103 win over the Sacramento Kings.
At 40-19, the Houston Rockets find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase. Along with Dwight Howard, Harden has propelled the Rockets to elite status. They are a threat to make a serious run come May. If Houston intends on being legitimate title contenders, they can only hope that Harden continues to play like its February.
Can Houston win in the playoffs with Harden leading them?
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MatthewHochberg.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.