James Harden strutted into the building in white pants, a brown turtleneck, with a gold piece and a technicolor dreamcoat looking for his “Garden moment.”
After tying the opponent scoring record with 61 points, he was asked if that would do for a Garden Moment.
“Yeah,” he said.
Maybe for him, but this was hardly a game anyone will be talking about for years to come.
Statistically, it is tied for the second-greatest scoring production in Garden history, with Kobe Bryant’s 61-point game in 2010 and one behind Carmelo Anthony’s 62-point game in 2014 (five years ago today). It is ahead of LeBron James’ 52-point triple-double* in 2010, Michael Jordan’s “Double-Nickel” game in 1995 and Steph Curry’s 54-point show in 2013.
And while Harden’s shot-making and sleight-of-hand ability to draw fouls are certainly amazing to watch, the overall performance was arguably far less than spectacular than the aforementioned others. The Garden buzzed mainly because the young home team put up a heck of a fight and almost stole their first home win in two months (almost, but that second-to-last possession that led to a turnover typified this season and the desperate need for a floor leader).
Harden’s elite skills are undeniable, but for the discerning New York audience, there wasn’t the same awe for past greats like Jordan, Kobe and LeBron, who came in looking to take over the stage and won the crowd over.
“This is one of the historical buildings in the sport that we have and obviously the fans are one of the best we have in the league,” Harden said afterward. “It’s pretty cool to come out here and just put on a show.”
If you like seeing free throws, long-range chucks and iso-ball (remember when that was said to be bad basketball?), then this was the “show” for you. Harden took 20 threes, 18 twos and 25 ones. He hit just 5 of 20 from three, but two of the five resulted in a four-point play. Overall, Harden was 17 for 38 from the field with countless layups on quick drives around a spread-out Knicks defense. His shot chart was a Mike D’Antoni dream: all threes and layups. He took just three mid-range shots.
And then there were the free throws. He was 9 for 9 from the line in the first quarter and finished 22 for 25.
Harden was fouled at least once by just about every player who took the court for the Knicks. He even drew free throws from David Fizdale, who was issued two technical fouls in the game and ejected in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t know why I got ejected,” Fizdale said.
The Knicks coach looked like he was ready to boil over after this game. He tried to be respectful towards Harden, an MVP who looks like he is running away with it again this year, but you could hear it in his voice that he had issues with how many whistles were blown — and calls were blown — by the officials.
“He got up 38 shots,” Fizdale said of Harden, “and 25 free throws.”
As Fizdale left the court with the escort of team security, he stormed by the Rockets bench. About five rows back was the watchful eye of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who got an earful from fans about their frustration with how Harden manipulates the rules to his advantage. Raise your hand if you grew up with the understanding that you could only take two steps after a dribble if it was TOWARDS the basket. Now, apparently, you can take two steps in ANY DIRECTION after the dribble and then set your feet for a shot.
But you have to credit Harden for being such a threat as a shooter that you have to get up on him, which is, of course, a trap. It’s like fighting Floyd Mayweather. You feel like you have to throw punches, but once you do, he makes you miss and then tags you for points.
Death by a thousand cuts.
It’s not the most entertaining fight, but you can’t deny it’s effective for him.
But unlike Mayweather, Harden seems to, at times, be so quick he not only suckers the defenders into reaching, he can sucker the officials into making calls they think they saw. On one foul that set Fizdale off, Tim Hardaway Jr. had his hands away and was trying to just take away space. Harden ripped his arms through Hardaway’s body and flailed and a foul was called.
“I don’t know what to tell my guys,” Fizdale said of how difficult it is to defend Harden. “Maybe you guys can find out what the ruling is for me.”
Through gritted teeth, Hardaway opted not to make any bold statements about the officiating.
“I’m not getting fined on anything,” he said.
Fizdale finally allowed this one concession: “I’m not saying all the calls were wrong. He earned some of them.”
He may now have his “Garden moment” and a place among the Garden scoring leaders, but did he earn a place in the history of this great basketball stage?
– Speaking of Iso-Ball, Allonzo Trier continued his resurgence with a career-high 31 points on 12 of 18 shooting. Trier sliced through the Rockets defense with his strong drives, including the go-ahead drive with 20 seconds left to give the Knicks a 110-109 lead. As we’ve been saying here, Trier took some time to recover from that hamstring injury that cost him seven games in mid-December. In the 9 games after he returned to the lineup, he averaged just 4.9 points on 30.5% shooting. But over the last three games, you can see he’s getting his strength and rhythm back, with 20 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists on 58.8% shooting. With a strong finish to the season, Trier has a shot at earning First Team All-Rookie honors, which would be a sweet way to end a year that began with him being passed over in the draft. Speaking of undrafted players, Trier’s 30-point performance made many of us remember the name Chris Copeland, who was the last undrafted rookie to have a 30-point game for the Knicks (end of the 2013 regular season). But Cope was 28 at the time and had been a pro in Europe. So we need to dive deeper into the archives to find the last time an undrafted “true” rookie put up 30 in a game.
– Trier drew a foul on a three-point attempt with 59.3 seconds left and made all three free throws, which led to the most bizarre play you’ll ever see late in a game. With the Rockets leading by 3 after Trier’s foul shots, Eric Gordon took the ball out under the basket and then went to hand it to PJ Tucker, who inexplicably refused to take the ball. So it just bounced under the basket, a live ball, until Noah Vonleh grabbed it and scored to make it a one-point game. D’Antoni revealed later that Tucker is the one who was supposed to inbound the ball and Gordon grabbed the ball first and stepped out of bounds and realized he wasn’t supposed to be there. So he went to hand it to Tucker and that’s when the confusion ensued. Weird play but it allowed the Knicks to turn a 5-point deficit to a one-point game without any time coming off the clock.
– More drama came earlier in the game when off a turnover Trier tried to drive against defense and lost the ball. Hardaway was on the break with Trier and let the rookie have it as he screamed, “Pass the damn ball!” When asked about the incident, Hardaway said, “Everybody wants to make a big deal out of it, but we’re brothers in here. Brothers fight, brothers argue and at the end of the day, they’re still brothers.” Hardaway says he knows Trier well enough at this point to know he can handle it. Trier’s take on the incident proves he can. “We were just communicating, passionately,” he said. “Because we both care. That’s the best way you can put it.”
– And then there was the added drama of Enes Kanter, who was a DNP-CD, had to be chastised by teammates to get up off the bench to join the huddle during timeouts and waited, still in uniform, for reporters after the game to reveal he was told that morning he was starting and then before the game that plan changed. “If you’re going to play me, play me,” he then said. “If not, just get me out of here.” Fizdale said the plan changed based on Houston’s penchant to play small lineups (Kenneth Faried started at center) and play a lot of pick-and-roll. So he started Vonleh at center with Lance Thomas at the four-spot to allow versatility for switching on defense. “Every pick-and-roll was going to be with James Harden,” Fizdale said. “So I was just thinking how much speed can I put on the floor to keep us close and keep up with him.” Kanter has struggled in pick-and-roll defense, but he expected to play due to the injury to Luke Kornet (ankle), who is expected to miss about a week or so. The trade deadline is Feb. 7. The logical thing to do is move Kanter, an expiring contract. But while you can understand his frustration in not playing, you also have to respect how Trey Burke and Courtney Lee have handled their situations.
– Frank Ntilikina (0 for 5) didn’t score, but he did record a team-high 6 assists and I’m looking forward to the Synergy statistics about his defense on Harden in this game. Ntilikina played Harden well — the MVP even gave him props in a brief chat on the court after the game — and Fizdale admitted he considered getting the 20-year-old back out there late in the game. But Fizdale went with Emmanuel Mudiay (-11, 7 turnovers) in the final five minutes, trailing 97-92, because he felt the Knicks “needed scoring out there and guys that were going to attack.” Mudiay had five points down the stretch and hit two free throws with 34.9 seconds left to give the Knicks a 108-107 lead. He finished with 14 points in 28 minutes. Meanwhile, Harden’s fourth quarter was his worst of the game, as he scored 10 points, made just 2 of 8 from the field and was 0 for 5 from three before his game-ending dunk off the Vonleh turnover.