LOS ANGELES • With the way the Houston Rockets' season failed to take off in posting a 1-5 start, critics began to throw up names from Giannis Antetokounmpo to the usual suspects like LeBron James as possible contenders for the National Basketball Association's Most Valuable Player award.
But last season's winner James Harden has propelled himself back into the MVP conversation following a blistering December, becoming just the fourth player to score 500 points in one month after Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant.
Fuelled by his scoring charge, the Rockets have also caught fire, going 9-1 in their last 10 games - a run made all the more impressive as they have been without hamstrung Chris Paul for the past four games.
The six-time All-Star found himself in even more hallowed company on Saturday after recording his third straight 40-point game to power the Rockets (20-15) to a 108-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans (16-21).
Harden finished with 41 points and six assists to become the first player since Oscar Robertson to contribute at least 35 points and five assists in seven straight games.
Robertson did it twice, in 1965 and 1967. Harden also became just the ninth player to score at least 35 points in seven or more consecutive games.
Wilt Chamberlain tops the charts with the three best streaks of 33, 23 and 20 games. Bryant is fourth with 13 consecutive games, followed by a separate 10-game streak by Michael Jordan.
"That's what I play for," the 29-year-old said when asked about being compared to Robertson.
"That's what you play the game of basketball for, to be mentioned in the name with the greats.
"Obviously, I have a long way to go, but that's what I put my jersey on for, that's what I lace my shoes up for, to go out there and be the best that I can be.
"When it's all said and done, be mentioned as one of the best basketball players to ever touch a basketball."
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni also claimed Harden is now "playing better than when they gave him the MVP" and felt he was a shoo-in to be "in the conversation".
He told reporters: "Harden just had a slow start and people kind of forgot.
"We were down and only in 14th place (at the beginning of the term), so I can understand why the conversation didn't start off really quick. But anybody who has been watching basketball for the last month knows that he is on a phenomenal streak."
Harden will get a chance to score 40 in four straight games when the Rockets host the Memphis Grizzlies today.
Elsewhere, Antetokounmpo also boosted his MVP credentials, landing his third triple-double of the term as the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks (25-10) won their third straight game with a 129-115 victory over the Brooklyn Nets (17-21).
The "Greek Freak" finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, prompting Nets coach Kenny Atkinson to call him "a superstar".