- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- Something both unusual and striking took place over the last six minutes of the Miami Heat’s highly entertaining game against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.
LeBron James was outplayed, at both ends, in a head-to-head matchup. The best player in the fourth quarter was James Harden.
He accomplished it in a man-to-man struggle with James. They guarded each other for those vital minutes in which stars earn their paychecks. Frankly, Harden was the best player in the game. And this was a night when James had 32 points, six rebounds and five assists and Dwyane Wade, Harden's primary defender for most of the game, had 31 points, five rebounds, eight assists and four steals.
That James-Wade 1-2 punch was ultimately too much for the Rockets, as they are for so many teams, and the Heat won 114-108. Wade was masterful in attacking, getting 13 free throws and making them all. James had another devastating shooting night, following up his 13 of 14 Monday by making 10 of his first 13 shots Wednesday.
James and Wade are champions -- this isn’t breaking news. But the statement of the night came from Harden.
Playing in Miami for the first time since last year’s Finals, where his struggles were a significant reason the Oklahoma City Thunder went flat in their title bid, Harden barely resembled the same player.
He’s had some huge scoring games this season but if there was a signature performance that displayed the difference between the Oklahoma City Harden and the Houston Harden it came on Tuesday night.
“He’s made superstar status,” James said of Harden after watching him put up 36 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. “He’s worthy of the max contract he received from that team. He can do a little bit of everything.”
The Heat could not handle Harden’s aggression for most of the game as he blitzed them in transition. He was his trademark self in creating contact and getting to the free throw line in the halfcourt. And when he had the Heat on their heels, he stepped back for jumpers, leaving them looking mildly foolish at times.
That included James. Twice in the final few minutes, Harden showed James up with the ball. With James respecting Harden’s drive he duped with step-backs that almost allowed the Rockets to pull off the comeback. At the other end, James struggled to get space with Harden on him. In the fourth quarter, Harden had 16 points and James had two, though James played only the last six minutes.
It was the complete opposite of last June, where guarding James zapped Harden at the offensive end and resulted in him getting in foul trouble on defense as James racked up huge numbers on the way to the Finals MVP.
During that series, the Heat put a bull's-eye on Harden in their game plan. They decided to focus in on him and attempt to take some things away, specifically his ability to get the ball in space so that he could drive and create contact to get fouls. So they attacked him defensively and were able to effectively limit him.
He averaged just 12.4 points and shot just 38 percent during those five Finals games while also getting shown up defensively at times by James. In the postmortem, Harden got some significant blame for the Thunder falling short.
“We were able to hone in on what he was able to do and take some of it away,” Heat forward Shane Battier said.
“No one had done it, and I think it frustrated him a little. Probably the only thing that is different now is his freedom. You give any talented player freedom in this league and that player is much more dangerous. He’s the franchise guy, and he plays with a tremendous amount of confidence. He’ll take any shot at any time and, as a defender, those are the most dangerous guys.”
At times this season Harden has struggled with the attention he’s been given by defenses like the Heat showed him last year in the Finals. As the featured player in the Rockets’ high-tempo offense, he’s at the center of the opposition’s defensive game plan every single night now.
Overall, though, he’s completely flourished. He’ll make his first All-Star appearance next week because he’s demonstrated he can indeed be the top option and succeed.
“I’m in a totally different role,” Harden said. “I have to find a way to master this role I’m in now.”
In the wake of the close defeat Wednesday night, Harden was lamenting the final minute of the game. After he got a rebound with 50 seconds to go and the Rockets down three points, he sprinted to the other end, but the Heat’s Mario Chalmers got back and took a charge.
“I should’ve pulled up for the 3,” Harden said, shaking his head.
The Rockets got two more possessions, but they swarmed Harden with double teams; they once forced him to give up the ball and once Wade blocked his shot when he tried to get off a contested shot. These are reasons why the Heat are such a dominant team: They have the experience and the ability to squeeze out close games by making such plays.
But for Harden, it shows how far he’s come in such a short time. His situation is totally different. The Rockets are in a fight just to make the playoffs. He will not, in all likelihood, see the Heat again this season, while the Thunder very well could be in a rematch in June.
Also totally different is Harden’s standing on his team and the league.
“There’s a difference in my confidence,” Harden said. “I’m the main option now. My confidence has to be up so I can show my teammates that we can go out and win these types of games.”