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When James Harden takes on a game, he scores 1
You want to see Houston's filthy victory of 102: 93, won without rotation racks like Eric Gordon and Danuel House Jr., as a harbinger of what's coming. As proof that Harden and the rockets can defeat the best of the best, that their extreme style of play – from the selection of punches to the overwhelming dependence on one player – works in shootouts as well as in battles with poor results.
And look, Harden was masterful.
He navigated through switches and traps. He split in the doubles and gave up the ball if he had to. The reigning top scorer continued his season-opener as never before, as the NBA was a nine-man league in which three chain-smoked cigarettes were acceptable pick-them-up at halftime.
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#Rockets James Harden is just the second player in NBA history to score an average of 38 points in the first eleven games of the season.
Wilt did it twice. https://t.co/IoxnXEWmBP[19659010<AsusualunresolvableunsustainableunderprintedandrogenicwhentheclippersreleasedThey did.
NBA @ NBA
🚀 Harden buries the DEEP 3!
📺: @ESPNNBA https://t.co/XKB2t2Z1RB[19659015<Twice[19659007<PositiveResidual @ presidual
Kawhi's reaction here has said it all: a complete miscommunication for the Clippers left James Harden wide open for three. https://t.co/pIT4fbDUMY[19659019lightboxesBecauseeventhoughthehardspeoplehashigherratepointsinthertastesteasonandthoughthelaunchof Russell Westbrook into the Rockets mix, the team is changing make-up, it's hard to argue that we've learned something new about the parties involved.
If you have not missed the full year 2018-19, you're sure that Harden is a historically potent scorer. And if you have not missed the last seven seasons of Houston (all with Harden), you know that every year it wins a lot of games against all sorts of opponents in the regular season. The rockets have retracted an average of 52.7 wins per season since Harden.
What we do not know and the win on Wednesday can not help us is whether Harden and the rockets can do this when the stakes are highest.  This is not a referendum on whether shooting teams can win championships. If recent history is a guide, can only win shooting teams championships. You just have to do those jump shots … and also defend, pass, strain, not choke, and so on.
This is about whether Harden and these missiles make it concrete.
Granted, the Rockets should have beaten the Golden State Warriors and probably reach the NBA finals in 2018. If they had avoided this eternal chill of three in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and defeated the dubs, perhaps in every way about them would be different. But playoff disappointment is an inseparable part of Rocket's history in today's reality.
Nor does the general esteem for Harden's game.
Although it feels too old to watch the rockets From October to April, Harden and Houston have already proved everything in the regular season. You master the simple mode, but still have no success on a higher difficulty level.
So the only aspects of a game like Wednesday that are really important to the Rockets are those that point to potential security vulnerabilities after the season.  Westbrook, for example, was a cool 6-of-20 from the field. He spent far too much in his twos, which accounted for only a small percentage of dribbling, and played too often in defense, as evidenced by the ridiculous four first-quarter fouls. He's simply not the consistent second option or trusted defender Chris Paul and it's hard to imagine he possesses self-restraint to resist his worst instincts in the amped environment of the playoffs.
Eric Gordon's absence, triggered by knee pain that would eventually necessitate surgery and cost him several weeks, is another problem.
When Harden saw tough double teams, the Clippers ignored him, Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers. Gordon can return to his full health and get things ashore, but what if he does not? Do the missiles have enough shots around Harden to keep the defense straight in a seven game series from afar?
Do not forget that neither Paul George nor Landry Shamet played for the clips on Wednesday. Houston was missing a few bodies, but Los Angeles was far from complete.
The Houston optimist could simply point to Harden and basically say that he is enough. That may be true.
We have never seen a scorer like Harden. He crushes every permutation of conventional defense and graduated last year to break the tricky tactics of the last resort that desperate opponents have developed to slow him down. Houston's best chance of overcoming the hump lies in the frightening possibility that he's perfecting his craft, that he's actually getting better.
Nevertheless, Houston's victory and the Harden dominance that brought him forth are left to us without much clarity.
The missiles answered many questions correctly, of course. But for these guys a test in November does not count for the final grade.