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The Mad Scientist

May 7 2019
Photo by
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports
P.J. Tucker
Houston Rockets
May 7 2019
L

ook, do you have any idea how hard it is to score 30 points in an NBA game?

I’m gonna guess you haven’t done it before.

S***, this is my 13th year playing basketball professionally and I’ve never done it before.

I don’t care how many shots you get or how you go about taking them, scoring that many points against the best athletes in the world is really, really hard to do.

So even if people followed James Harden’s streak this season, I don’t think they really know about it. My guy scored at least 30 points (and usually a lot more) in 32 straight games. Thirty. Two. In a row.

James is way above politicking over his greatness or advocating for the MVP award. Fortunately, I am not.

And that’s why I’m writing this. I want to get across a simple message that I know to be true: James Harden is (STILL) the most valuable player in the NBA.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images

The best comp I have for James actually isn’t basketball-related at all.

James is a mad scientist.

What I mean by that is one of the most underappreciated parts of his game is his mind. He’s self-aware about his game — he knows how teams want to attack him. So whatever you do, he’ll go into his lab and mix some potions and boom, he’ll still bust you.

I guess that makes me his assistant, doing whatever dirty work I can to help him out. That’s our yin and yang. He does what he does, and I do what I do. And because of that we both make each other better. My job is to give James enough room and energy to experiment and then just enjoy the results.

He’ll go into his lab and mix some potions and boom, he’ll still bust you.

If you’re too far off him, he’ll step back from anywhere and make you look stupid. If you’re too close to him, he’ll do this lefty Eurostep past you while holding the ball out, which you’ll reach for and end up fouling him.

And let me be clear, you will foul him.

You want to know why James gets so many whistles? Because he gets fouled a lot.

There you go, mystery solved.

S***, I used to foul him all the time and it drove me insane. And that’s all part of his plan. No matter how great you are at defending, James can make you reach, and when you do he’ll absorb that contact and keep going because he’s so strong. As he gets more whistles, and you get more frustrated, he’ll just keep attacking. By the end of the game, you’re beat up, exhausted and pissed off.

And James? He’s cool. James will be so steady and calm while he’s killing you on the court that you won’t even realize it until you look up at the scoreboard and he’s put up half a hundred while not looking like he even broke a sweat.

As a defender, that just sucks.

Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

My guy averaged more than 36 points per game this year, the most since Jordan averaged 37 during the 1986–87 season. When you’re the defending MVP and you put up those kind of numbers, every team comes out with the same basic game plan: Don’t let that guy beat us.

There’s a problem with that, though: James is a better basketball mind than anybody trying to stop him. Trust me, I’ve seen teams pull every strategy in the book. Double teams, triple teams, switching every player you can on him. When we played Phoenix, they were doubling him at half court from the start of the game, even if he was 40 feet away from the basketball. Literally left one of our guys wide open and didn’t care. I’ve never seen anything like that in an NBA game.

Like, don’t get it twisted. I’m a competitor. I want the ball when it matters. But I came to Houston because I wanted to play with Chris Paul (a guy I’ve been close with since we were kids) and James Harden. They’re both not only the best the league has to offer right now, but also among the best to ever do it, period. I get a front row seat to watch greatness night after night.

Sometimes that means taking 12 shots, sometimes it means taking two. But that’s a tradeoff I’m happy to make because when you play with two guys who have amazing vision you know you’re going to get the ball when you should have it.

And that truly is another underrated aspect of James’s game. Everyone sees the scoring — how silky smooth and comfortable he looks just dribbling at the top of the arc. But what people might miss is his decision-making. James may sometimes take shots that seem impossible or even borderline insane, but when you’re around him every day, you know he’s not improvising out there. He plans for those shots, he practices them and — it goes without saying — he consistently drains them.

And because he understands what a big threat he is, his decision-making is off the chart. I set an NBA record for corner threes made this year, and one of the reasons was because a lot of those shots were open looks. Part of that is our system, but the only reason that system works is because of the attention James earns every time he’s on the floor.

I’ll put his decision-making skills another way: Have you ever played MyPlayer on 2K? You know how the grade for your player will go up and down during a game depending entirely on whether you make the right play. The best way to describe playing with James is that his grade wouldn’t fluctuate very much. He knows when he has a look he can make, when to dish and when to be a diversion so others can create. If he got measured by 2K standards, James would always have an A.

Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

When I first arrived in Houston, I knew plenty about James just because I used to have to guard him. That sucked. As someone who has carved out a career in this league by making winning plays, being tough on defense and just generally doing the dirty work for my team, I always hesitate to say any player is unguardable. I just hate that term. But I honestly remember the moment when I decided it was the only way to describe James.

It was last season when we played a game against Orlando. This was late January, close to the All-Star break, and our roster was decimated by injuries.

Chris was out, Eric was on limited minutes, a few other guys were banged up. We had to call up a few G-League guys to fill out the roster. Given all that, it was fair to conclude this wouldn’t be a particularly memorable game for us. This was a night where the circumstances were what they were, and you just go out there and give it your all. But it’s a tough spot.

Someone forgot to tell that to James.

Every team comes out with the same basic game plan: Don’t let that guy beat us.

Knowing that we needed a little more from him that night, all James did was go out and become the first player in NBA history to score 60 points while recording a triple-double.

I had never in my life seen anything like that. For real, hands down, it was the most incredible individual performance I’ve ever witnessed in … anything — not just basketball. That was the point when it really hit me that this dude right here was different.

That was last season, when James rightfully earned his first MVP award.

And this year, somehow, some way, he got even better.

Consider that for a second: He was named MVP last year and then he took it to an entirely different level.

So what I’m saying is that anyone can look at a box score and understand that James is a great player. But that box score can only tell you so much. What he means to the Rockets as a teammate and leader can’t be measured on paper. And sharing the floor with a player of his caliber is without question one of the highlights of my career.

There are a number of ways to define most valuable player. For me, it’s the guy who means the most to his team. By that standard, with all respect to the other amazing superstars in this league, I don’t think this MVP race is even a contest. There’s just simply no way any player could be more valuable to his team than James is to ours.

Don’t question it. It’s science.

P.J. Tucker
Houston Rockets