The game was less than a minute old when James Harden fired up his first shot, a three-pointer that slid cleanly through the net as Emmanuel Mudiay fouled him, turning it into a four-point play to begin the festivities at Madison Square Garden.
With the Knicks at 10-36 the allure of wins and losses is long gone, but there was a bit of intrigue on display as the Knicks took on the Houston Rockets. Could James Harden, in his record-setting run, add something else to his resumé, a Madison Square Garden scoring record.
From that first play Harden steadily poured it on, 19 points in the first quarter, 36 by halftime and 49 by the end of the third quarter. When it was over, it was with his defense that Harden matched a Garden record, stealing the ball from Noah Vonleh and dunking with 3.9 seconds left to score his 61st point, tying Kobe Bryant for the most points scored by a Knicks opponent at the Garden, and securing a 114-110 win for the Rockets.
“This is one of the historical buildings that we have in this sport,” Harden said. “Obviously, the fans are one of the best that we have in this league so it was pretty cool to come out here and put on a show for them.”
Harden’s total was just one point shy of the record for the Garden by any player, the 62 scored by Carmelo Anthony in 2014. Knicks coach David Fizdale, before being ejected, tried to come up with a way to slow Harden and came up empty.
“Maybe ask the team that’s playing him next because I don’t know,” Fizdale said. “I just feel like every time the ball leaves his hands it’s got a chance to go in. That’s greatness. The guy is a — he’s a great player. He didn’t just score tonight, he had 15 rebounds. He was going after this win. Five steals, four assists. And I thought we really challenged him and got after him. We got five turnovers out of it. He’s just great.”
After Fizdale was ejected late in the fourth it was the Rockets who seemed to fall apart. Allonzo Trier, who finished with a career-high 31 points, hit a pair from the line to pull the Knicks within one — and when Eric Gordon flipped the inbounds pass for P.J. Tucker, Tucker inexplicably moved out of the way. Noah Vonleh picked up the loose ball and dropped in a layup for a one-point Knicks lead with 34.9 seconds remaining. Harden drew a foul on Tim Hardaway Jr. and drained a pair of free throws with 29.9 seconds left to push Houston back in front, 109-108.
Trier scored again, this time driving through the porous Rockets defense. But as the Rockets came upcourt, this time they didn’t put the ball in Harden’s hands. Gordon swished a three-pointer for a 112-110 lead.
Harden was in control much of the night — as he has been in a historic run. This marked the 21st straight game in which he has scored at least 30 points — the fourth longest streak in NBA history. But as he finally slowed down in the fourth quarter the Knicks came back. When Mitchell Robinson, isolated up top against Harden, blocked a three-point attempt, Trier converted a three-point play on the other end to cut what had been a 10-point deficit to just two. But Harden then took Robinson to the rim, converting a layup and drawing a foul for a three-point play with 1:38 remaining.
He then went to the line for two more, giving him 56 points — topping Michael Jordan second highest point total by an opponent at the Garden. He added another as Fizdale was ejected with a second technical.
For much of the night it was Harden alone versus the Knicks with the Rockets playing still without injured starters Chris Paul and Clint Capela. The Knicks tried to match the Rockets basket for basket — or more accurately, match Harden. Harden reached 45 points before he got his first assist and then he began to make the Knicks pay for every double team, tossing long lobs to Kenneth Faried and cross-court passes to open three-point shooters.
Most points by a Knicks' opponent at the current Garden:
61 James Harden, Rockets Jan. 23, 2019
61 Kobe Bryant, Lakers Feb. 2, 2009
55 Michael Jordan, Bulls March 28,1995
54 Stephen Curry, Warriors Feb. 27, 2013
52 LeBron James, Cavaliers Feb. 4, 2009
51 Richard Hamilton, Pistons Dec. 27, 2006