Yet the real story was the history Harden didn’t make. Because Houston was leading 127-73 after three quarters, Coach Mike D’Antoni elected to rest Harden for the entire fourth quarter. That decision cost Harden the opportunity to top his career high of 61 points or surpass Bryant’s hallowed total of 81, set against the Toronto Raptors in 2006.
D’Antoni’s decision was a matter of common sense — there’s no use risking injury with the win comfortably in hand — and it aligned with similar sportsmanship precedents, even though the Rockets could have rested Harden for the entire second half after building an 81-52 halftime lead. Bryant scored 62 points in three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks in 2005 before sitting out the fourth quarter of a blowout win. Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson scored 60 points in three quarters against the Indiana Pacers in 2016 before resting the final period.
Traditionalists who oppose running up the score in search of statistical achievements shouldn’t take the Rockets’ decision for granted. Indeed, the conditions were almost perfect for a historic night. Harden was unstoppable, shooting 16 for 24 from the field, 8 for 14 on three-pointers and 20 for 23 from the free throw line. He was playing at home, with no health or schedule concerns, on the Saturday of the long Thanksgiving weekend, against a young and weak interconference opponent.
And this isn’t any old superstar. Harden is arguably the NBA’s most empowered player: He has received multiple long-term contract extensions; he reportedly pushed his front office to trade Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook; and he leads the NBA in scoring, shot attempts and usage. If Harden had wanted a new career high, or if he had wanted to entertain the holiday crowd, or if he had wanted to eclipse Bryant, it’s hard to imagine that anyone, including D’Antoni, could have stopped him.
Fear of future retribution from the Hawks was nonexistent, and Harden had little to risk when it came to public backlash. He is already Public Enemy No. 1 to fans who believe he flops and hunts foul calls with questionable offensive maneuvers. If campaigns to shame him into playing a more conventional style have failed, why would he be dissuaded by an outcry over stat-chasing?
Consider this, too: Many observers have built up a tolerance to Harden’s scoring feats, and conventional wisdom dictates he needs a title to validate his greatness. If 50 isn’t enough to earn him unconditional praise anymore, doesn’t he have reasonable motivation to push as far past 60 as possible?
Remember, 81 is remembered as one of the defining achievements of Bryant’s career; it marked the second-highest total in NBA history — trailing only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in 1962. There’s no question that 82 would be viewed as Harden’s defining achievement to date. Cynically speaking, it’s the type of accomplishment that sneaker brands and headphone companies could milk for years.
Harden and his peers happen to be performing in a stats-obsessed era dominated by fantasy basketball and the NBA’s modern pace-and-space style. In 2017, the Phoenix Suns set a more aggressive — and shameless — precedent when they helped Devin Booker score a career-high 70 points. Coach Earl Watson, then in his second season, force-fed Booker and didn’t substitute him out, even though the Boston Celtics led by double digits in the closing minutes. Watson offered no apologies afterward, and the Suns celebrated Booker’s achievement despite the loss.
It was only a matter of time until another team, coach and star would have the choice of chasing records or handling things the right way. With a few days to reflect on all the factors at play, the most impressive aspect of Harden’s latest 60 was Houston’s restraint.
Even so, the big question hangs: How long will sportsmanship and decency win out?