James Harden's on fire, and he may only be warming up
Tim Warner / Getty Images Sport / Getty

We need to talk about James Harden.

No one's oblivious to the unbelievable tear Harden has embarked on over his last 17 games, but the reigning MVP has taken his game to a level of offensive excellence so absurd, you find yourself rambling in circles when trying to comprehend it.

Harden entered Monday's game against the Grizzlies tied with Kobe Bryant for the most consecutive 30-point performances since the NBA-ABA merger. He crossed the threshold for the record-setting 17th straight game with 3:27 remaining ... in the first half, eventually finishing with 57 points on 17-of-33 shooting in 34 minutes of action, leading the Houston Rockets to their 14th win in 18 contests.

Over his last 17 appearances, he's averaging 41.3 points on a true shooting percentage of 62.8 while attempting more than 15 3-pointers a night. To witness Harden's flame-throwing right now is the basketball equivalent of a religious experience.

He's an offensive entity the likes of which we've never seen. This is a guard, whose game is predicated on sky-high usage, ball distribution, and a plethora of step-back jumpers, somehow scoring with the efficiency of a low-volume big man.

Harden's play has catapulted the Rockets to fourth place in the Western Conference after an 11-14 start, with Houston maintaining the league's second-ranked offense despite Chris Paul missing 17 games, the Carmelo Anthony experiment flaming out three weeks into the season, Eric Gordon shooting 38 percent from the field (and then missing time himself), and P.J. Tucker leading the team in total minutes.

At the core is Harden, doing all of the things we've come to expect - the step-back 3-pointers, the parade to the free-throw line, generating open (corner) threes for teammates - just at a new rate that makes even Mike D'Antoni blush. The result is a Rockets offense that scores at a league-leading level (114.9 points per 100 possessions) with Harden on the court, but craters to New York Knicks-level efficiency (105.4 O-rating) when he sits. The Rockets' 3-point shooting plummets from 36.3 percent with Harden on to 32.8 percent when he takes the bench.

At his best, Harden's always been an offense unto himself, but with the undermanned Rockets lacking the depth and versatility of last season's 65-win team, he's been forced to amplify things.

Consider last week's loss to Milwaukee, a Bucks performance that was lauded as a masterclass in how to defend the Beard.

The Bucks emphasized taking away Harden's dominant left hand, often forcing him to drive right and making him more uncomfortable than he's looked all year. The result was a 13-of-30, nine-turnover performance. Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll find that if you add up Harden's individual shooting possessions, his nine turnovers, and the points created by his passing during that loss, the Rockets still scored 58 points on what amounted to 49 possessions.

If a team maintained that level of efficiency (1.18 points per possession), it would top the league by a mile. Harden does it on a bad night.

The obvious question to ask is how much longer Harden can keep this going, and while the answer is born out of a series of unfortunate events for Houston, the truth is that he might only be warming up.

Paul and Gordon are expected to return over the next week or two, but the Rockets were dealt another massive injury blow on Monday when it was announced Clint Capela is expected to miss four-to-six weeks.

On a team level, there's obvious reason for concern. Thirty-six-year-old Nene is the only other true center on the roster, and while Tucker can man the middle in limited doses of potent small-ball units, the Rockets don't have anyone else who can provide Capela's offensive rim-running or defensive rim protection. On an individual level, what we saw from Harden against the Grizzlies could become the norm with Capela out of the lineup.

A stunning 147 of Harden's 344 assists this season - 42 percent - have been dished to Capela, whose aforementioned rim-running and explosiveness give the guard an easy lob target. Take those looks out of Houston's offense, as well as the spacing Capela creates for shooters, and Harden's best option seems to be simply holding the ball a little longer to hunt his own offense.

Case in point: During the first 16 games of this record-setting streak, Harden averaged a usage rate of 41 percent (the percentage of team possessions with him on the court that ended in a Harden field-goal attempt, free-throw attempt, or turnover). During Monday's game against the Grizzlies, he posted a mind-boggling usage rate of 57.7 percent.

You can argue that level of usage absurdity is a mere blip on the radar, but you could've said the same thing about this streak as a whole about two weeks ago, and yet here we are, still wrapping our heads around Harden's ongoing onslaught.

With Capela sidelined, a compressed West playoff race, Harden openly gunning for a second straight MVP, and five of the Rockets' next eight games on national television, he may not have hit the crescendo of this masterpiece just yet.

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James Harden's on fire, and he may only be warming up
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