‘Unreal’ Harden makes it four straight with 40-plus

HOUSTON — A historic run by reigning MVP James Harden has allowed the Houston Rockets to rise in the Western Conference standings and awed his coaches and teammates.

Harden continued his roll with a 43-point triple-double on Monday to carry the Rockets to a 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, pulling Houston (21-15) into a tie for fourth place in the West standings less than three weeks after they were 14th in the conference.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Harden joined Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the only players in the last three decades to score at least 400 points over a 10-game span. He’s the first player since Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook two seasons ago to have four straight 40-plus-point performances, something that had never been done in Rockets history.

“What he’s doing is incredible,” Rockets guard Austin Rivers told ESPN. “What he’s doing is a Kobe. Man, that’s a Kobe run. That’s what he’s doing. He’s doing it so effortlessly. That’s the thing. It’s not like he’s forcing it or like he’s shooting the ball every time. I mean, it’s crazy.. He’s just different, man.

“For real, you can’t stop him. Back to back [MVP]. He’s going to end up winning this s— back to back. Nobody in the league can do what he’s doing right now. He’s winning back to back MVPs. It’s incredible.”

Harden is averaging 39.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 2.1 steals during the Rockets’ 10-1 run. He has eight consecutive games of at least 35 points and 5 assists, breaking a record set by Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson. And Harden has three of his four triple-doubles this season during Houston’s hot streak.

“I don’t know how you get any better than what he’s playing,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Defensively, too. He comes up with steals, triple-doubles like it’s nothing. So, yeah, he’s playing at a different level.”

Harden described the Rockets’ win over the Grizzlies as “a little bit ugly,” harping on his nine turnovers instead of celebrating his 43 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists. He was 8-of-19 from the floor, 6-of-12 from 3-point range and 21-of-27 from the line, setting a career high for free throws attempted.

“I’m just being aggressive, man,” said Harden, who acknowledged that he’s “probably” playing the best basketball of his life. “I’m just in attack mode. They tried to shake some things up tonight and run a double team at me and whatnot. I did a poor job. I did a poor job of just not controlling the basketball, basically giving them transition points by turnovers. I have to take care of the ball more but just continue to be aggressive and make plays for my team.”

Harden’s performance in the first half in particular left teammates shaking their heads and smiling in amazement. He accounted for 50 points in the half, scoring 28 on 7-of-10 shooting and dishing out eight assists, six for 3-pointers and a pair to Clint Capela for easy baskets, exploiting Memphis’ attempts to force the ball out of his hands.

“Other teams just have to trap him, because 1-on-1, you can’t stop him,” said Capela, who had 19 points and 13 rebounds in the win. “You just can’t. He’s been doing it for 10 plus games now at that level. Right now, he’s playing at the best level in the league as a player. If he keeps going that way, obviously he’s going to be the MVP.”

Harden, who according to ESPN Stats & Information joined Golden State’s Stephen Curry as the only players ever to hit at least five 3-pointers in seven straight games, put the exclamation points on his spectacular first half by drilling a pair of deep, off-the-dribble 3s on the Rockets’ last two possessions. He pulled up from 32 feet with 32.3 seconds remaining and beating the halftime buzzer with a 28-foot stepback that gave the Rockets a 61-38 lead.

“It’s crazy, man,” injured Rockets guard Chris Paul said at halftime. “It’s crazy to watch the games and to witness it. … What he’s doing is unreal.”

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