Rockets 117, Cavaliers 112 - James Harden's MVP Performance Lifts Rockets Over Cavs

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The Houston Rockets clinched a Playoff birth on Sunday with a statement win over the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, thanks to an MVP-like performance from James Harden. Harden and his teammates played this one with Playoff intensity, and their hustle and effort (and a few made threes) gave Houston one of its biggest wins of the season.

The first half was a story of three-point shooting, as most games involving the Houston Rockets tend to be. However, Cleveland’s momentum also relied primarily on how the deep ball fell. In the first quarter, the Rockets took control with a barrage of threes, hitting seven of their 15 attempts. Meanwhile, Cleveland was less reliant and much less effective, only sinking two of its eight attempts – allowing Houston to build a 33-26 lead at the end of the opening period.

The second quarter was the polar opposite of the first in terms of three-point shooting. Houston could not buy a bucket in the second period, while Cleveland caught absolute fire. The Cavs were led by Richard Jefferson (a guy who the Rockets drafted and immediately traded back in 2001) in that second period, as he scored 16 points on perfect shooting from the field – including four demoralizing threes. With LeBron James resting on the bench, Cleveland took advantage of Houston’s completely ineffective second unit and managed a huge 20-7 run that gave the Cavs a double-digit lead. Cleveland’s lead would get as high as 14, but Houston managed to cut it down to single digits by halftime (67-58).

They say that basketball is a game of runs, and that phrase could not have been better exemplified than it was in the third quarter. Coming out of halftime, the Rockets looked a little out of sorts for a couple of minutes until a 9-0 run, anchored by back-to-back threes from James Harden and Ryan Anderson, cut Houston’s deficit to five. Cleveland immediately responded with a 7-0 run to give the Cavs a 12 point lead. The Rockets would not be discouraged though, and responded with an 11-0 run to cut Cleveland’s lead to just one point (81-80). Houston’s next couple of possessions were kind of crazy as it took them six opportunities to finally make a basket – a Lou Williams three that tied the game at 83. Houston continued this run, closing the quarter with a 90-86 lead.

The fourth quarter started with James Harden getting a short rest, which Cleveland took advantage of to regain the lead (96-94). After Channing Frye hit the three to give Cleveland the lead, Mike D’Antoni quickly called a timeout to bring Harden back into the game. Houston’s effort levels went through the roof in the final period, and it greatly benefited the Rockets on the scoreboard. The Rockets were absolutely dominating Cleveland on the offensive glass (20 rebounds, compared to only four for the Cavs), and the hustle plays gave Houston opportunities to build a small lead at the free throw line. Houston built up a nine point lead with just one minute left and, despite Kyrie Irving’s late scoring burst, held on to defeat the defending champions.

The superstars really came out to play on Sunday (and on national television, no less) and really made their imprint on this game. Cleveland’s two stars – LeBron James and Kyrie Irving – were really efficient on their way to 58 combined points. However, James Harden’s sixteenth triple-double (38 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) was just as efficient and, ultimately, more – ahem – valuable to the winning team.

Houston has been impressive in the last six games, handily beating both the Clippers and the Grizzlies, nearly beating a hot Spurs team, being competitive with the Jazz, and now beating the Cavaliers. Houston’s schedule gets easier in the coming weeks, and they will enjoy a few days off before taking on the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday.

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.

Sunday’s game ball goes to James Harden.

In truth, this is the first time I’ve wanted to give the game ball to multiple players, but I’m not going to set that precedent just yet. James Harden gave one of the best performances of this season and likely made MVP voters’ jobs a little more difficult. The Rockets could not have won without him, but they also needed the hustle plays from none other than Patrick Beverley and, surprisingly, Nene. Now, their numbers won’t jump out at you, but their contributions, especially in the fourth quarter, stand out as things that decided this game.

In the end, James Harden was magnificent and, rightfully, heard chants of “MVP” from Houston’s faithful in the Toyota Center.

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