James Harden went off for 51 points in a 115-111 win over Sacramento on Wednesday. It was yet another brilliant offensive performance for the Houston guard.

At this point, we have to wonder: Is Harden, 25, simply on his normal career trajectory, or did the injury to Dwight Howard force him to step up and fill the void for the Rockets?

“I think the injury to Dwight Howard opened the door for James to be recognized in this way,” Bleacher Report senior NBA writer Ric Bucher said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “But a lot of it has to do with his being with Team USA last summer – and I believe going all the way back to the playoffs last year where he was exposed a little bit. Everybody knew he was a great offensive player, but they went at him defensively, Portland did. And it ultimately cost him not only the playoffs, but it cost him a lot in terms of his reputation. And then he’s with Team USA and he saw how those guys operated as two-way players, and I believe all of that motivated him to come in in a different way and to take a different approach – and we’ve seen that. And not that he’s going to be a great defensive player, but he’s making an effort and he’s better. And you add that with what he’s been able to do offensively.”

Of course, there’s another change Harden has made – one that’s been a little more personal.

“James was always known as a guy who – not a crazy partier, but a guy who liked to have fun,” Bucher said. “And there were times where you wondered how much energy does he actually have for this particular game? And we haven’t seen that kind of letdown this year. That’s what no one has written about or talked about: how he’s changed. Because he had a dramatic change in lifestyle that has allowed him to be the consistent star that we would see for periods but not over the course of a year. Because there’s no way that he could be carrying the load this way and still (be) having as much fun as he was having previously.”

Harden is now neck-and-neck with Steph Curry for the MVP race. Harden is averaging 27.5 points, 7.0 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals for the Rockets (52-24), who are second in the Western Conference. Curry, meanwhile, is averaging 23.8 points, 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals for the Warriors (62-13), who have been the best team in the league seemingly all season.

Curry was the clear-cut favorite to win MVP a few months ago. Now, Bucher isn’t so sure.

“I’ve felt as if the tide has been turning a little bit,” he said. “I do feel it’s Steph’s to lose. He’s still at the top of my ballot. I’ll sit down at the end of the season and kind of sift through everything and make a final determination, but I feel as if a lot of people are looking at Houston being the No. 2 seed and the relative – I don’t want to say lack of talent, but unknown talent on the Rockets. And the scoring performances that Harden has had.

“I hate to say it,” Bucher continued, “but I find that a lot of times with the voters, they end up looking at the statistics and finding a way to justify their choice. Steph’s going to lose on that – not by his own hand, but the fact that they’ve dominated so many games and he doesn’t play in the fourth quarter. James is on the cusp of passing Steph because it’s easier to make a statistical argument why he’s more indispensable to his team than Steph is.”


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