As Houston toyed with the Wizards on Tuesday night, running away with a 120-104 victory, Harden delighted with another MVP-caliber performance. Washington dispatched several defenders into his face and still had no answer as Harden scored a game-high 38 points while adding 10 rebounds and nine assists.
“It was a great player playing special,” said Wizards Coach Scott Brooks, who groomed Harden during his early years in Oklahoma City.
“He had everything going. We tried switching. We tried trapping. We tried everything on him. And then he was making tough step-back threes. He made them all year. . . . He’s a great player.”
Wizards guard John Wall, in his second game back from his eight-week knee rehabilitation, played 33 minutes and shot 3 of 10 from the field for nine points. And while Wall’s shot didn’t fall, his ball security waned.
On several occasions, Wall zipped to the rim on the break but turned and passed to phantom teammates. Although he compiled 10 assists, Wall also finished with eight of the Wizards’ 17 turnovers.
“I tried to make a couple passes [where] I thought people would be but [they weren’t],” Wall said. “So it’s a testament in me getting used to playing with guys again and guys getting used to me and being in the right situation. But those are my mistakes.”
Washington (42-36) has lost two straight and dropped to seventh place in the Eastern Conference, which would create a potential first-round playoff matchup with the second-seeded Boston Celtics.
“I’m not comfortable with nothing. I’m trying to move up,” Wall said of the four remaining games on the regular season schedule. “You know me. I’m just a person who goes out there and compete and try to win every game I play, and hopefully all these guys have that same type of mind-set. No matter who you play in the first round, who you play in the second round, it’s going to be a tough matchup because it’s the playoffs.”
On Tuesday, the Wizards proved to be no match for Houston, the team with the best record in the NBA at 63-15.
Although Bradley Beal finished with a team-high 27 points and the Wizards shot 52.8 percent, Washington’s offense could not keep up with the offensively potent Rockets — or with a player who arguably should earn the league’s top individual award.
Ahead of Harden’s bench-dancing and his Wizard-tormenting, Brooks viewed his former protege as this season’s most valuable player.
“Yeah, he’s definitely an MVP this year. He’s played well, and his team is playing the best in basketball. But you can always argue LeBron [James] can get it every year. Just like Michael Jordan should have had 12 of them. LeBron is the same type of player,” Brooks said. “But James is deserving. He’s put in a lot of work. He’s gotten better every year, and sometimes it’s hard to do that when you’re at a high level. He’s been at an MVP level for the last three years or so, but every year he’s come back and played better.
Harden found creative and varied ways to score and score and score. In the first half, Harden drew two fouls against Wall — punishing him for reaching in on a three-point attempt, then blowing by him to the rim.
Harden also lured Wizards forward Markieff Morris into hacking on a three-point attempt before drilling the shot that no defender wants to face — his step-back triple. Harden even got Kelly Oubre Jr. with a step-back three, and in the garbage minutes of the fourth quarter he did the same against Tim Frazier.
“I was just being aggressive,” Harden said, summing up his near triple-double night.
The Rockets collectively shot 51.2 percent from the field, results that should not have been surprising. In his second year with the team, Coach Mike D’Antoni has added more fuel to an already-potent Rockets offense that attempts 42.3 three-pointers per game, by far the most in the NBA.
True to character, the Rockets launched 46 shots from beyond the arc but they made only 16. Neither Harden nor the three-point attack could be blamed for the Wizards’ early defensive struggles. Washington lost footing early in the game by meekly defending the interior.
The Rockets scored their first eight points at the rim before even attempting a three — which was made by Luc Mbah a Moute. The team returned to the easier looks after that shot, and at the 7:13 mark Harden lobbed his second pass to center Clint Capela for another alley-oop. The Rockets scored 18 of their 35 points in the paint in the first quarter.
Houston led by 11 through the first 12 minutes, and then Harden put away the game. Harden needed a little more than seven minutes in the second quarter to knock down four of five shots for 14 points and assist on three other buckets. The Rockets’ lead swelled to 71-49 by halftime, and it did not fall under double digits for the rest of the game.
“That’s an elite ballclub over there. You respect what they do and how they play the game,” Beal said. “They beat us.”