Houston Rockets: Will James Harden top Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game?

Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images) /

James Harden is giving the Houston Rockets a season for the record books already, but what are the chances he eclipses Kobe Bryant’s historic 81-point game this season?

The Houston Rockets are an offensive runaway train to start this season and James Harden is the conductor. Going into the season already off a career-high season average of 36.1 points per game, The Beard has upped that high mark even more with a multitude of brilliant performances so far.

Going into Monday evening’s slate of games, the Rockets were tied with the Milwaukee Bucks in points per game with 120.3. Despite shooting 45.2 percent overall compared to the Bucks’ 48 percent, Houston’s gaudy 38.9 points per game from the 3-point line and charity stripe combined have been enough to make up for that.

Nobody in the league today has the offensive repertoire that Harden has in his arsenal. Some are certainly close, of course. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic are currently second and third in the league in scoring respectively, but there’s a reason James is eight points ahead of even the second-place Greek Freak.

How is Harden doing it?

Two main things are separating James Harden from the pack in terms of scoring the ball: 3-pointers and free throws. Harden is using the 3-ball to both tally high scoring nights and free himself up for drives to the basket, which often leads to his second major strength: drawing fouls.

Looking at the top five scorers in the league, Trae Young has the most points from 3-pointers aside from Harden, at 10.2 points per game. Meanwhile, Harden is averaging 14.7 per game from beyond the arc. He’s taking an insane 14 attempts from deep per game to reach that mark, but it certainly explains part of the discrepancy between his scoring and everyone else’s.

? 4th career 60-point game
? 16-24 FGM
? 8 3PM

In three quarters of action, @JHarden13 attempts the lowest number of field goals in a 60-point performance in @NBAHistory! #OneMission pic.twitter.com/tOZ8Jm9E5n

— NBA (@NBA) December 1, 2019

Harden’s point differential from the free-throw line is also glaring. James is currently averaging 12.5 points per game strictly from the foul line while Doncic is second at 7.8. That’s another 4.7-point advantage The Beard has over everyone before even putting the ball on the floor.

On top of those two weapons, Harden is just flat-out scoring from everywhere on the court with ease. Doubling him has worked in spurts, but he appears to be adapting on the fly quickly, as evidenced in the last blowout victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

So, how likely is Harden to surpass Kobe’s single-game high?

For Harden to have a realistic shot at Black Mamba’s insane point total of 81 points in a January 2006 game against the Toronto Raptors, many things will have to come together perfectly.

Talent-wise, there’s no doubt that James Harden is capable of dropping 80-plus over the course of a 48-minute game. After all, Harden is coming off a game in which he scored 60 points in just 31 minutes and didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.

.@JHarden13's 24 FG attempts is the lowest FG attempts ever to score 60 PTS in NBA history!

The previous lowest was Karl Malone (26 FGA) for 61 PTS on January 27, 1990. #NBAVault pic.twitter.com/HV7fLlfVkJ

— NBA History (@NBAHistory) December 1, 2019

The last two times a player recorded 60 or more points without playing the fourth quarter were Klay Thompson (60) in 2016 and Kobe Bryant (62) just three and a half weeks before his famous 81-point game explosion.

What’s remarkable about Harden’s recent 60-point game is the efficiency with which he was able to accomplish the task. Averaging his scoring against Atlanta out to a per-48 minute basis, you get a staggering 92.9 points. Yes, you read that correctly. James was on pace for 93 points if he somehow was able to hook up directly to an IV-drip during every timeout and go all 48 minutes.

For comparison, David Robinson‘s 71 points in 1994 put him at 77.5 points per 48. Devon Booker’s recent 70-point game was on pace for 74.7 points by the same measure.

The only per-48 average among the top individual performances of all time (outside of Wilt Chamberlain‘s many staggering scoring efforts where he literally played all 48 minutes) is Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game in which he finished with a per-48 of 92.6. That’s still slightly below Harden’s pace on Saturday.

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The only thing that could prevent James Harden from eventually seeing the elusive eight in the first column of his score would be situations similar to what happened against the Hawks. With the game obviously well in hand, Mike D’Antoni wisely sat his superstar to rest him and prevent possible injury.

Chances are high that if Harden is playing at such an insane level, the Rockets will likely have that game in-hand well before its conclusion. Still, if any coach is going to play his stars longer than they probably should, it will be D’Antoni. If a game is even within 17 or 18 points while James is cooking, there’s a strong possibility he’ll be in the middle of the action.

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James surpassing the 80-point plateau in a game is starting to shift more toward a question of when it will happen, and not if it’s possible.