Rockets 121, Hornets 114 - Harden Cooks Up Rockets' Ninth Straight Win

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The Houston Rockets escaped a late collapse against the Charlotte Hornets for their ninth straight victory (the second such streak in just 40 games this season). With Eric Gordon sidelined with a toe injury, the Rockets called upon none other than their MVP to cook up another victory.

After a slew of slow starts in the past four or five games, the Rockets came out on a mission to score and went on a 10-0 run less than two minutes into the game (kicked off by back-to-back threes from James Harden and Trevor Ariza). Houston made six of their first seven field goal attempts, but their shooting percentage came back down to Earth a bit (57%) – allowing Charlotte to go on a 22-9 to cut Houston’s lead to just one point. Harden, who scored 14 points and dished out four assists in the opening period, responded with two late threes that ultimately gave the Rockets a 32-26 edge after the first.

Houston slowly built a 13-point lead throughout the second quarter, thanks to Ariza contributing nine points and assisting on a Patrick Beverley three (most of this damage was done with Harden on the bench). Then, Harden checked back in and things really exploded for the Houston offense. The Rockets took a 20-point lead by adding five more threes in the second period – including this Ryan Anderson make off a spectacular behind-the-back pass from Harden:

The Rockets closed the second period on a 19-6 run to give Houston a 67-47 lead going into halftime. Harden was well on his way to yet another triple-double with 22 points on 50% shooting (5/8 from three), seven rebounds, and six assists.

Houston came out cold in the third quarter, missing its first four three-point attempts and turning the ball over a few times. Meanwhile, the Hornets came out looking to execute the same game plan that Houston tries to execute every night. Charlotte added six threes in the third and managed to cut the deficit down to 11 points (it had been as high as 23).

The Rockets looked very flat for the majority of the quarter, and it was a third period reminiscent of the dreadful third periods of yesteryear – the type that the Rockets couldn’t come back from. Luckily, this team doesn’t have the same mentality as last season and ended the third period with a flurry, starting with a James Harden three and an exciting transition layup for Corey Brewer. Houston had built the lead back up to 17 (96-79) by the end of the period.

Charlotte’s big men – particularly, Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes – really gave the Rockets problems in the fourth quarter. Their ability to stretch the floor and hit the deep ball brought the Hornets buzzing back, cutting Houston’s lead to single-digits. Houston’s shooting really went cold, Kemba Walker’s craftiness was finally effective against the Rockets’ defense, and a 18-2 run brought the Hornets within two points. Kaminsky capitalized on another missed three from Harden and drained a deep three to give Charlotte a 111-110 lead with 2:26 left in the game.

Following a timeout from Mike D’Antoni, James Harden found Ryan Anderson for a corner three (and another triple-double for the ‘Beard’) that regained the lead for Houston. Montrezl Harrell came up with a huge block on the other end of the floor and Harden finished a layup in transition. Houston now held a 115-111 lead just 35 seconds after Charlotte initially took the lead.

The Rockets played locked down defense on two straight possessions, but couldn’t capitalize. Harden was called for an offensive foul on a drive to the basket (he pushed the defender off with his right arm), and Beverley was called for a foul for colliding with Kemba Walker after Montrezl Harrell blocked Walker’s three-point attempt.

Kemba Walker took advantage of the Hornets retaining possession and swished a deep three to cut the score to 115-114. On the very next possession, Harden drew a screen from Harrell and scored on one of his patented Euro-step layups to increase Houston’s lead to three. The Hornets followed by drawing up a play to free Kaminsky at the top of the three-point line. However, Kaminsky saw Harrell coming after him, pump faked and tried to draw a foul on a three-point attempt. Harrell did an excellent job of avoiding contact with Kaminsky and the Rockets got the rebound with 20 seconds left, which meant that the fouling game was about to start.

After a timeout (Rockets couldn’t get the ball inbounds), Ariza made the puzzling decision to inbound the ball to Harrell – who was immediately fouled. Harrell, a 60% free throw shooter on the season, calmly sank both free throws to give Houston a 119-114 lead. The Rockets forced another Hornets miss and Harden sank two more threes for good measure. The game was finally, mercifully, over.

Without Eric Gordon to provide his usual scoring punch, the Rockets needed a monstrous night from Harden and improved efforts from role players – and that’s exactly what was delivered. In fact, five non-Harden Rockets scored in double figures (including Corey Brewer!) and Patrick Beverley posted eight points, eight rebounds, and five assists.

The Rockets have a quick turnaround as they face the young Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis Wednesday night.

Game Ball

This is a segment of the game recaps that will give the proverbial game ball to a player that proved to be most valuable to the Rockets on a given night. This award won’t necessarily go to the player that puts up the best numbers, but to the player that made the greatest impact on the team – tangible or intangible.

Tuesday’s game ball goes to James Harden.

There’s not much more you can say about a stat line like the one Harden posted Tuesday (40 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists), but the fact that this stat line included seven made three-pointers and several clutch plays. It was refreshing to see Harden shoot (and make) that many threes, a necessary task given Gordon’s injury, but it was way more important to see that he was aggressive in the final moments of the game. He called upon his own number late in the game for a couple of tough layups to give Houston some breathing room, but he also kept the point-guard mentality to find teammates late (i.e. when he found Ryan Anderson for the corner three that regained the lead).

With Gordon unlikely to play (or even travel) in Minnesota tomorrow, the Rockets are going to need Harden to turn his ridiculous up a notch – especially with the tough schedule coming in the next two weeks.

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