1. January 3, 2019
Line: 44 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists, 13-32 field goals, 10-23 3-pointers, 8-9 free throws, +5, THE SHOT
This game may be a surprising choice for first on this list, and perhaps if we were compiling simply his “best games” we would have selected his performance over the Magic or Knicks. Yet this list is the “most captivating” and it’s hard to argue any game fits that description more than his January 2019 game against the Golden State Warriors.
To set the scene, Harden was slowly losing all of his perimeter help.
Chris Paul was out injured, as was Eric Gordon. Offseason addition James Ennis III had missed the previous nine games with an injury and was only available for eight minutes against the Warriors. The Rockets signed guard Austin Rivers a week prior and he was not only starting, he was playing 40-plus minutes.
This meant everything was on Harden, and he was delivering beautifully. His record streak of 30-point games began with a 50-spot he put on the Lakers on Dec 3, and coming into the game with the Warriors he had put up 40 or more points in four-straight games.
The Warriors have plenty of defenders to throw at Harden, and they have historically found success mixing up coverage on him. Honestly, that worked in this game as well, with Harden working for every point. By the end of the game he had 44 points, but it took 32 shots to get there.
Perhaps it was exhaustion that kept him outside, or a need to score faster than a 2-pointer would allow. But Harden took a career-high 23 shots from beyond the arc, doing everything he could to keep the Rockets within single-digits throughout the second half. At one point, the Rockets trailed by as many as 20.
It was in the fourth quarter that Houston finally closed the gap, pulling to within one multiple times in the final minutes.
With just one minute left and the Rockets down six, he engineered an incredible series of events, first throwing a full-court pass to Clint Capela for a layup-and-one, then stepping back for a crisp 3-pointer over Kevin Durant’s long-but-not-long-enough arms. Tie game.
When the game went to overtime Harden continued to work to keep the Rockets in it. Down two with just a handful of seconds left Harden caught the ball on the inbound, rose up over Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and hit the biggest shot of his career — a dagger 3-pointer with one second left to win the game.
With all of the odds stacked against the Rockets, Harden made play after play to not only keep his team hanging around but ultimately to win the game. The window from which he shot the game-winning 3-pointer was impossibly small, in between two All-NBA level defenders.
Harden ended the game with 44 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, hitting a career-high 10 3-pointers, and of course none bigger than the final one.
Perhaps more impressively he took just nine free throws as the Warriors emphasized not fouling him. Harden had never scored that many points with single-digit free throw attempts.
With the entire world watching Harden put on the epitome of a one-man show, trading blows with the likes of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant on his own. That made the victory the most captivating performance of his career. With Harden still putting up record numbers this season and the end of his prime nowhere in sight, it’s likely this list will get even more additions in the months and years to come.