James Harden played what might have been the best game of his career last night, torching the Thunder for 46 points in a 122-119 win over his former team. Any performance like that is bound to be full of great plays, but one stood out from the rest – Harden’s shot to end the third quarter. It was from halfcourt, and it was a thing of beauty. If you just want to watch the video, here:
Now, if you’ll bear with us, we’d like to dig a little deeper, to more fully to appreciate what Harden did. As luck would have it, yesterday SB Nation’s Jon Bois wrote a tribute to the halfcourt shot, celebrating the mere fact that a shot attempt so unsuccessful (3-234 this NBA season, prior to last night) is still tried so often. In fact, the shot is so unsuccessful that he regarded every make as a minor miracle:
If you and Kobe Bryant shot free throws, he would make a lot more than you would. If y’all backed up to the three-point line, he would still sink far more. But as you backed up further and further, to half-court and beyond, both your success rates would eventually slope off into negligible territory. His qualifications as a basketball player would matter less and less until they didn’t matter at all, and if he hit one…I would just as soon credit it to luck as I would his skill set.
Yes, certainly, maybe they’re just hoping for it to go in, but I prefer not to think that way. These shots are miracles…The ones that actually fall surely do so because they’re guided by the basketball gods. And when they are, I guess, you just know.
So, given all that, what made Harden’s shot so great? Well, it turned the entire idea that half-court shots can’t be attributed to skill on its head. The headline of Bois’ piece titles the shot “the half-court heave,” the “heave” implying that players are just haphazardly throwing the ball up and letting the chips fall where they may. Because that’s generally what happens. It’s a low-risk, high-reward situation – the only risk is to one’s shooting percentage (and the odds of sinking the shot are low enough that sometimes, that risk is enough to not actually attempt the shot). Now let’s look again at what Harden did:
That’s no heave. That’s a shot. Harden dribbled as far as he could, set his feet, and launched a jumper with better form than you’d have a right to expect from someone roughly 50 feet away from the basket. Yeah, he leaned into it – it wasn’t quite a smooth Ray Allen three-point stroke – but that extra power needed to make a half-court shot has to come from somewhere. There are certain stylistic concessions one has to make when trying to hit a shot from that far away.
And that was the thing – Harden wasn’t merely hoping to make it. He had a legitimate plan of action in order to get off the highest-percentage shot he possibly could, and followed through on it to perfection. The ball couldn’t have gone in more smoothly if Harden had dunked it. And if you’ll remember, the final score of the game was 122-119 – one could technically view that shot as the difference in the game. On top of the skill displayed, it actually meant something to the outcome.
Sure, there was some good fortune involved – it’s not like Harden would have made that shot 10 times out of 10. he might have been lucky to hit five of 10. But he made the halfcourt shot look like an exercise in finely-honed basketball ability. That, maybe more than any half-blind throw that goes in by dint of good fortune, was really a miracle.