James Harden might have wanted to celebrate. He might have wanted to pump a fist, pound his chest, maybe smile.
He could not. He had spent everything his tank could hold.
With the Rockets running out of bodies, and low on any reliable help, Harden would not let them lose. He would do all he could, everything he could imagine, dominating as he never had before until finally, he nailed a 3-pointer, completed a four-point play and had a franchise-record 60 points, lifting the Rockets past the Magic, 114-107, on Tuesday in an individual masterpiece.
Harden broke Calvin Murphy’s franchise record of 57 points and his own career high of 56. But he did more than that. Harden finished with 11 assists, 10 rebounds and four steals.
His ninth 50-point game since joining the Rockets was one more than every Rockets player ever combined.
His 60-point triple double was the first in NBA history.
IHe did it because it had become clear that it would be the only way the Rockets could win, with Harden playing all but 94 seconds as the Rockets ran out of options.
Shorthanded as both teams were to begin the game – with Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza out for the Rockets and Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic unavailable for the Magic – Orlando had enough bodies left to form a crowd.
When Eric Gordon was pulled in the second minute of the second quarter, the Rockets were down to a seven-player rotation with Harden the only remaining point guard.
The Rockets could not consistently hit 3-pointers or take them away, with the Magic hitting 48.4 percent of the 31 they put up. But Harden scored 36 second-half points to answer everything thrown at the Rockets.
Harden had been getting to the rim from the opening tip, but then, he did not know how much the Rockets would need him to dominate. By the third quarter, with Gordon out and the Rockets struggling to slow the Magic from the 3-point line, he had taken over largely because it was the Rockets’ only reliable option.
Harden made all five of his attempts in the third quarter, scoring 18 points with three assists, taking the Rockets to the fourth quarter with a 90-88 lead.
Harden had by then scored 42 points with 10 assists, giving him his seventh game with at least 40 points, three more than anyone else.
The Rockets, however, could not shake the Magic, largely because the Magic continued to knock down 3s as needed. Even when Harden put in a turnaround, off-balance 3-pointer to beat the shot clock and give the Rockets a four-point lead, Marreese Speights immediately answered with a corner 3 through a foul to tie the game with 6 ½ minutes left.
Harden could not, however, find consistent help. After Speight tied the game, Luc Mbah a Moute missed a wide-open 3 and Capela missed a layup.
That brought the offense back to Harden who finished a drive and then went for a slam, drawing a foul. He stayed on the floor a moment, with the Toyota Center crowd holding its break. But by then, he needed any break he could get.
The Rockets might have been running low on solutions when they began running out of healthy perimeter players, but the problem began before Eric Gordon went out.
While the Rockets misfired from the 3-point line throughout the first half, the Magic repeatedly made the extra pass until they knocked down 3-pointers, hitting 8 of 15 attempts through the first half, taking a 55-54 lead into the second half.
Though Harden could regularly get to the rim, scoring first-half 24 points as he made all eight of his shots inside the 3-point line, he missed all seven of his attempts from deep as the Rockets went 5 of 19 on 3s in the first half.
Green, who had scored 28 points in Orlando when Harden was out, hit a pair of those first-half 3-pointers and started the second half next to Harden. But with the Rockets low on shooters they had one still left, and he was all they would need.