James Harden's performance on Saturday night was enough to make even those who see him put up gaudy numbers night after night step back and marvel at his work.
Harden scored a season-high 60 points in 31 minutes, and the Houston Rockets sent the struggling Atlanta Hawks to their 10th straight loss with a 158-111 romp. He joined Klay Thompson and Kobe Bryant as the only players in the past 25 seasons to hit 60 points in just three quarters.
"It's like everything else he does -- unbelievable," coach Mike D'Antoni said.
Harden exited with the Rockets up 127-73 at the end of three, having gone 16-of-24 from the field, 8-of-14 from 3-point range and 20-of-23 from the free throw line in just 31 minutes. His 24 shot attempts are the fewest ever in a 60-point game in NBA history.
Harden came one point shy of matching his career high and franchise record on a night he made eight 3-pointers and 20 free throws.
"What he's doing has not been seen," teammate Austin Rivers said. "My man had 60 and didn't play the fourth quarter. Name another player who could do that right now."
Harden reacts to being two points shy of new career high
James Harden sees his stats on the Jumbotron and is shocked to see that he's just two points shy of setting a new career high at the start of the fourth quarter.
It was Harden's fourth career 60-point game, tying him with Michael Jordan for third most in NBA history, trailing only Kobe Bryant (six) and Wilt Chamberlain (32). Harden is the only active player who has scored 60 points more than once.
But as usual, he wasn't interested in talking about reaching 60 points while spending an entire quarter on the bench.
"Nope," he said, before walking off and repeating the word two more times.
"We try to do what we have to do against James, which is throw a lot of bodies at him," Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. "Try and put him under duress. He just didn't feel us."
The Rockets raced to a 14-5 lead and stretched their advantage to 81-52 by halftime behind 31 points from Harden for their third 80-point first half in franchise history.
But as good as Harden was in the first two quarters, it was nothing compared to how he dominated in the third quarter.
Houston was up 83-56 early in the period before he scored all of the team's points in an 18-3 run that made it 101-59 with 7 minutes left in the period.
Harden made three 3-pointers and was fouled on 3-point attempts three other times in that stretch. He had eight assists, three rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot to go along with his 60-point effort. He finished as a +50.
After the third quarter, Harden was sitting on the bench with a towel draped over his shoulders when he was shown on the video board with a note that said he was two points shy of setting his career high. Harden looked at the screen, read the note and pointed at it while opening his mouth wide in fake shock as if to say: "I was so close," before smiling broadly.
"Yeah, I was playing with the fans a little, but honestly I didn't know," he said. "But we played a really good game those first three quarters, so it was an opportunity for other guys to play minutes that they've earned."
There were a few halfhearted chants of "Harden! Harden!" midway through the fourth quarter from a few fans who hoped to see Harden come into the game to make Rockets history. But D'Antoni kept the bearded superstar on the bench with the game well in hand.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.