Most of the copious baskets that James Harden, of the Houston Rockets, has made this month have been unassisted.
James Harden sent a shiver through the N.B.A. a few weeks ago. He lead his team, the Houston Rockets, back from a twenty-point deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors, the defending champions, on their home court. He did this by hitting a three-point shot with seconds left to send the game into overtime. And then, in overtime, with two of the league’s best defenders, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, floating in the air on either side of him, with their outstretched hands leaving a seam no bigger than the width of the ball, Harden hit a three-pointer to win it. He scored forty-four points in the game, with ten rebounds and fifteen assists. It was the sixth straight win since Harden’s co-star, Chris Paul, went down with a hamstring injury, a span in which Harden had been averaging forty-two points per game. It turns out to have been a prelude to his playing in the subsequent weeks, which has continued to be dazzling, up to and including his sixty-one points in a victory over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
There have been many strange milestones and records during this stretch, which may one day come to seem something like Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak. (Though it’s hard to imagine a nation turning its troubled eyes to Harden.) One stat I enjoy pondering is that only one player has ever averaged more than Harden’s current January average of 45.3: Wilt Chamberlain, who did it five times.
But these game-winning shots and gaudy statistics, scintillating as they are, only hint at the pleasures of watching Harden play. His very movements are strange and unusual, even obscene. His game can seem—in some visceral way, having to do with his body language, his beard, the way he deploys his arms and legs with such litigious ingenuity that players have taken to guarding him with their hands held up in the air, as though someone just shouted “This is a stickup!”—profane.
A friend and former high-school teammate of mine, John Merz, who belongs to what is surely a small club of former basketball junkies who are now reverends, said, of Harden, “His step-back is driving me crazy. This lunging backward for the three-point line is becoming carnivalesque. It has completely changed the balance between the inside and outside dialectic of basketball. Those two things were always in delicate relation, but now it’s gone. The game of basketball was meant to be played moving toward the basket.”
Ronnie Nunn, a former director of N.B.A. officials, has emerged as a kind of defender of Harden’s step-back, which many people see as a travel. It is a travel, sometimes, Nunn told me, when he does “a double step-back.” But, most of the time, Harden’s carefully calibrated move is legal. “Calling travel is about a dance,” Nunn said. “Once you understand the rhythm of it, you can determine whether it’s legal or not. It’s really not about counting steps anymore once you see it. Just know the rhythm.” Harden’s rhythm, as Nunn has described it, is 0-1-2: “A waltz.” I always thought that the rhythm of the step-back was a kind of salsa. I showed videos of Harden’s step-back to Laura Stein, of the Dancing Grounds dance school in New Orleans. She thought that it resembled hip-hop footwork, with its wide step and change of direction, “like a top-rock in breakdancing.”
Harden didn’t invent the step-back, and, at this point, it seems that nearly every N.B.A. player has a version of it, including centers likes Joel Embiid. If you watch Kristaps Porziņģis’s draft workout video from 2015, you will see, amid the rapid succession of jump shots and dunks, the seven-foot-three-inch Latvian taking two giant, elongated step-backs. Yet Harden has made it his own, crystallized its impact on the game. Everywhere you go, you will see players practicing the step-back move. And it’s always so unique; everyone has their own version. Playing pickup basketball last summer at Pier 2 in Brooklyn, I had to laugh at the flamboyant theatricality of this one kid’s step-back. It was so over the top. The self-congratulating way he cocked his head at the end was part of the Harden influence, too. And, to the kid’s credit, it worked. He kept leaping dramatically back. The ball kept going in. I see some version of this on every playground and at every gym. I practice it, ridiculously, myself.
Harden’s step-back has entered new territory this season. “He took 0.9 step-back threes per game in 2016–17 and 2.4 last season,” according to Sports Illustrated. This season, he is taking more than six every game. Harden has changed the way the game is played in ways that remind me of Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. Jordan’s game fetishized his air time. The poster-worthy dunk from the foul line became the fantasy object of players the world over. Iverson made a fetish of the crossover. He managed to take the aesthetic of hip-hop and translate it into basketball. Breaking your opponents’ ankles became basketball’s ecstatic accomplishment under Iverson’s reign.
A kind of changing of the guard occurred between Jordan and Iverson, in the spring of 1997—at the start of Iverson’s career and near the end of Jordan’s. It happened in one play. Iverson is guarded by Jordan at the top of the key. In the video, you can hear Phil Jackson’s voice, nearly drunk with confidence after his first run of championships, calling out to Jordan to pick up Iverson. There is something about his tone of voice that suggests the power at his disposal, in Jordan.
Iverson crosses once, to his left, then brings it back. Then he does it again, this time with more force. Jordan lunges, misses. (I feel like I am telling a story from Greek mythology.) The great Jordan was now off-balance, out of position, and this feisty and very quick newcomer was alone with the ball at the top of the key. But, as Iverson would later remark, such was Jordan’s skill that he recovered in time to leap toward the ball and nearly block Iverson’s shot. But he didn’t. The ball leaves Iverson hands and swishes through the net. There is a nearly Sistine Chapel-like frisson to the moment, two fingertips just grazing each other.
Harden has taken Iverson’s template and embellished it. Most of the copious baskets Harden has been making this month are unassisted. One man on an island, creating his own shot, as Iverson did against Jordan. And, like Iverson, there is a lot of dribbling. The feeling is of a player dancing with himself. Harden likes to lower his body, with one leg forward and one behind, and dribble the ball rapidly back and forth, instilling terror. Then he lunges and either continues to the basket to score or get fouled (or both), or steps back. Once he has created his space, he pauses. The beard seems to jut forth a bit, taunting. It happens in a split second, but it is an unmistakable effect of the over-all move. That one little hesitation has a practical element—it is Harden gathering balance before rising to shoot—but, psychologically, it is devastating. One can’t help but wonder if this is why he so often draws fouls on these long-range bombs—the defender throwing himself at Harden with kamikaze conviction, anything to prevent another highlight-reel step-back from swishing through the net. (An extreme version of Harden’s taunt, to the point where you can’t miss it, was one of the most celebrated plays of last season.)
That Harden’s game is an evolution of Iverson’s came into focus a couple of years ago, when I was watching a video of Iverson highlights and, for the first time, Iverson’s game seemed antique. At first, I thought that it was because of all the long twos that Iverson took. Long two-point shots are now the equivalent of drinking beer after a game and thinking that it hydrates you. Analytics have revealed that the greatest efficiencies are to be found in three-point shots, foul shots, and shots at the rim. But my response was more visceral than that—something about Iverson’s game appeared dated. It had always seemed timeless.
I finally realized that the famous Iverson crossover—so fluid, stylish, and fierce, the apotheosis of street ball’s swagger at the N.B.A. level—now felt incomplete. Iverson would cross and then either rose for the shot or darted toward the rim. Something was missing. And then I realized what was missing was the sudden launching away from the rim, which is the effect of the step-back.
We all know that athletes operating at the highest levels need to summon nearly sociopathic levels of confidence. After Harden hit that game-winning shot against the Warriors, he falls down, and then, like a Russian Cossack dancer, he pushes himself up into a squat position and, even before he starts standing up, enunciates a string of curse words directed at Draymond Green that emanate from within the cave of his beard. Green, who is charming in his own way, had surely said and done much to earn the retort. And then, moments later, Harden, surrounded by his exultant teammates, waves a single finger at them, scolding them, reminding them that there is still a second and change on the clock. When the Warriors’ final shot bounces off the rim and the win is sealed, he is mobbed again and flashes two fingers. It took me a moment to realize that he was referring to the M.V.P. award, which he won last year. He was saying that he was going to win it two years in a row.
In spite of Harden’s heroics, the game’s most memorable play, which I have returned to many times, took place with exactly three minutes and forty-five seconds to go in the third quarter. The Warriors are still leading by eleven points. Harden brings the ball across half-court, moves hastily to the three-point line, and seems to consider taking a three-point shot. He is being guarded by Kevin Durant and—you can almost see the thought bloom—has a better idea. He hands the ball to Gerald Green, who is being guarded by Stephen Curry. Green immediately hands the ball back to Harden and sets a pick on Durant.
Curry, a two-time M.V.P., switches on Harden, the reigning M.V.P., while Green jogs away toward the opposite side of the court. Durant, also a former M.V.P.—these guys are really good at basketball!—opens his defensive stance so he has a view of both Green, who is his responsibility, and the ball. But then Durant stops moving and looks directly at the suddenly isolated pair of players, Curry and Harden, with concern. Curry flicks his hand toward Durant in a way that suggests that he needs no help. “Go guard your man” is the message. There is something touching in Durant’s reluctance to leave the scene altogether. His friend and teammate Curry is now on an island with Harden. It’s like seeing your friend in need while having to take care of yourself. What to do?
Durant, after a moment of worry, moves toward Green, leaving Curry to his fate. Durant’s face become stony, abstract, and he isn’t looking at Green or at the ball; it’s almost like he is trying to put the decision he just made out of his mind. Then Harden, dribbling from his left hand to right, briefly loses the ball. An unforced error. He has to take a few steps away from the basket to gather it. Curry gets right up on him, pressing his advantage. The sun comes out for Durant, unfreezes him. Now he is engaged, watching the play, calling out encouragement to his teammate. Maybe it won’t end badly.
But it does for Curry. Harden regains control, dribbles between his legs, lunges forward with two hard dribbles, and then does his trick, which is to stop very suddenly and push off in the opposite direction. The third dribble is essentially a crossover, except, instead of moving the ball from one side of the body to the other, like Iverson, Harden moves it forward to backward. To accelerate faster than another player is an obvious advantage, but Harden has shown us the other side of this equation. He is a genius at deceleration. The move sends Curry reeling.
Harden pulls up for a short-range shot that goes in. It wasn’t nearly as spectacular as his later heroics in the game, but the point in the play where he lost the ball contained a delicious moment: his right hand reaches to dribble the ball, but, instead of meeting a ball, the hand only finds air. It flutters with a rapid hummingbird motion that was, I felt, like getting a glimpse into the inside of a watch, seeing the many cylinders and counterweights spinning madly in tension with each other. One senses, in this moment of disequilibrium, the remarkable balance within Harden and everything he does on a basketball court.