With Harden recording a second consecutive triple-double, the Rockets (14-14) claimed their third successive victory and again evened their record with a 105-97 victory in Memphis on Saturday. The peril of asking Harden to shoulder too much of a burden has played out in postseasons past, with Harden succumbing to fatigue at inopportune times.
Still, when Harden is at his best like he was in producing his fourth career 50-point triple-double last Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers, it is easy to wonder what inspires such stunning bursts of productivity. When asked precisely that, Harden does not mind boasting.
"That's every game," Harden said.
The Rockets will host the Utah Jazz on Monday at Toyota Center looking to climb above .500 for the first time since they were 9-8 on Nov. 23 following a loss at Detroit.
Harden, as is expected, has been instrumental in their recent improvement, averaging 31.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists this month while posting a true shooting percentage (67.8) that is his best for any month this season. There is a correlation between a heavy workload and turnovers for Harden, and when the Rockets were shorthanded, Harden did experience an uptick in untimely miscues.
In December, Harden is averaging a manageable 34.2 minutes per game. His turnovers remain elevated (5.4 per game this month), but the improved shooting numbers portend to superior play across the board. When the Rockets strike the balance between allowing Harden to dominate without relying on him too much, they tend to perform at optimal levels.
The Jazz (14-16) fell in Mexico City to the Orlando Magic on Saturday when they shot 31.5 percent in a 96-89 loss. Utah has dropped three of four games after winning four of five.
Such spurts have represented a season-long trend for Utah, which opened the season 4-2 only to lose four consecutive games and then immediately win three in a row. The Jazz lost six of eight prior to the successful stretch that preceded their recent downturn.
Utah has dominated its season series with Houston thus far, outscoring the Rockets by 19 points on average through two meetings. The results haven't been as prolific otherwise, with the Jazz ranking 23rd in offensive rating entering Sunday at 106.2 points per 100 possessions.
Second-year guard Donovan Mitchell, the 2018 Rookie of the Year runner-up, hasn't yet hit his stride. He has been slowed a bit by injuries, missing four games thus far, and hasn't settled into a rhythm as a secondary facilitator to point guard Ricky Rubio. With opponents better prepared for his daring drives to the rim, Mitchell is averaging 19.3 points per game this month while shooting only 40.8 percent. Additionally, he's averaging only 1.7 assists over those seven games.
"I think the most important thing for Donovan, just to try to compete in every situation," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. "And the reads, well, you know, you can't not think. You can't think too much. You've got to just compete and those things take care of themselves."