Rid­ing The Beard:

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Mar­tin Rogers Colum­nist

James Har­den’s scor­ing bar­rage raises the Rock­ets and the NBA.

We are get­ting to a point with James Har­den where he is just about ready to break the game. It’s bor­der­line ridicu­lous. If de­fend­ers don’t im­pose them­selves phys­i­cally, Har­den scores. If they do any­thing more than breathe in his vicin­ity, it is a foul. If he gets fouled, he sinks his free throws.

And if you don’t foul, when it re­ally mat­ters, he does some­thing silly like driv­ing a gamewin­ning dag­ger into the bot­tom of the net and deep into your soul, like against the Golden State War­riors last week.

Hous­ton Rock­ets fans got the Christ­mas gift of their dreams — a fully fit, highly mo­ti­vated, un­shack­led and in­vin­ci­ble ver­sion of Har­den, with a point to prove and a chip on his shoul­der.

The re­sults since then aren’t best told by num­bers, but let’s start there any­ways. Be­gin­ning Dec. 22 through the start of the week, Har­den has col­lected seven con­sec­u­tive games with at least 38 points. Go­ing back to Dec. 11, Hous­ton was 13-2, and Har­den has been the top scorer in every game. He’s blitzed de­fenses at a 39.9 scor­ing av­er­age across those 15 games while lift­ing the Rock­ets to fourth in the Western Con­fer­ence.

He hasn’t been play­ing chumps. LeBron James’ Lak­ers couldn’t stop him, nor could the Ok­la­homa City Thun­der, nor the Bos­ton Celtics, nor the speed­ily im­prov­ing San An­to­nio Spurs.

And last week, in a re­match of last sea­son’s Western Con­fer­ence finals, right at the end of a game that the War­riors had led by as many as 20, Klay Thomp­son, Dray­mond Green and 27 feet of Or­a­cle Arena real es­tate couldn’t stem Har­den’s flow ei­ther as he hit a win­ning 3-pointer.

“Cer­tain play­ers change the game,” War­riors coach Steve Kerr said. “Har­den is one of those guys. He has changed the way peo­ple draw fouls and he has got­ten re­ally good at it. He’s the best in the league at it.”

Har­den’s num­bers are get­ting into Kobe Bryant and Michael Jor­dan ter­ri­tory, although it looks markedly differ­ent to ei­ther of those greats.

He had been to the foul line 74 times in his last five games, but Har­den has lit­tle time for crit­ics of his ap­proach’s aes­thetic value.

“Stop foul­ing,” Har­den said. “It’s sim­ple.”

For those who are get­ting a lit­tle weary of scor­ing rates spik­ing faster than the pres­lump Dow Jones, there is noth­ing of so­lace for you here.

Un­like the stock mar­ket, Har­den shows no sign of a dip, and why would he? He’s just get­ting warmed up, and the NBA’s re­stric­tive rules on de­fen­sive con­tact give him, and oth­ers savvy and tech­ni­cal enough to ex­ploit the sys­tem, a huge ad­van­tage.

But here is the thing. Har­den’s dra­mat­ics could be the pre­cise fac­tor that turns the post­sea­son into a wor­thy spec­ta­cle and ends the re­cent run of pre­dictabil­ity. Back in the early weeks of the sea­son, the sur­pris­ingly woeful form of the Rock­ets had peo­ple talk­ing about one is­sue more than any other.

If Hous­ton wasn’t go­ing to be a con­tender, who could chal­lenge the War­riors?

The an­swer, still, is prob­a­bly no one, cer­tainly in the West. The Den­ver Nuggets led the con­fer­ence but are still some way and one su­per­star shy of be­ing a post­sea­son heavy­weight, while the Thun­der will need Rus­sell West­brook to re­dis­cover his mojo if they are to be a lin­ger­ing force.

Har­den and Hous­ton have the like­li­est shot at top­pling Golden State. They were the clos­est any­one came last sea­son, tak­ing a 3-2 lead in the con­fer­ence finals be­fore an un­timely in­jury to Chris Paul. De­spite the War­riors’ oc­ca­sional stum­bles this sea­son, who else can go head-to-head with them on near equal terms?

Har­den’s style is not to ev­ery­one’s lik­ing. The game slows when the free throw stripe is called into ex­ces­sive use and takes away from what is best about bas­ket­ball, its pace and rhythm and ex­tra­or­di­nary ath­leti­cism.

But maybe it is a small price to pay. Hav­ing Har­den, the most dom­i­nant player in the game right now bar none, tak­ing the chal­lenge to the team of this gen­er­a­tion, is a matchup well worth seven games of any­one’s time.

The Rock­ets are surg­ing so rapidly that they are on course to leapfrog into a pref­er­en­tial play­off po­si­tion. They are finely po­si­tioned for a run at the No. 2 seed and maybe even the top spot.

Har­den against hap­less de­fend­ers with whis­tle-happy ref­er­ees on per­ma­nent standby — that’s not a fair fight. Yet if The Beard’s cur­rent streak is set­ting up the league for a thrilling play­off slugfest? Well, no harm, no foul.

TROY TAORMINA/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

James Har­den led the NBA in scor­ing with 33-plus points per game.

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