Rockets 110, Nuggets 104 - Harden Returns to Clinch Third Seed

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With James Harden and Trevor Ariza returning to the lineup after missing Sunday’s win in Phoenix, the Rockets managed to win an ugly one, both completing a season sweep of the Denver Nuggets and clinching the third-seed in the West. The outside shots weren’t falling, but a quietly brilliant performance from Harden allowed the Rockets to pick up their 53rd win of the season.

Houston got off to an incredibly hot start as they shot 68.4% in the first period, including nailing five of their first nine three-point attempts. Harden and Ariza both looked pretty fresh after missing Sunday’s game in Phoenix. Harden scored nine points and recorded six assists in the first 12 minutes, and Ariza hit his first three baskets (including two threes) leading to a very productive 10 points and eight rebounds in the first half.

Just as has happened so many times this season, the Rockets faced a scoring drought that allowed the Nuggets to keep this game in reach. Despite Houston shooting nearly 70% in the first quarter and building a 17-point lead in the second, the Rockets could not buy a basket for an extended period (including missing all seven tries from beyond the arc) and Denver managed to cut the lead to as little as seven points. After a late jumper from Harden, the Rockets walked into halftime with a 59-50 lead.

The third quarter was a total mess. Denver opened the period on a 13-5 run to cut Houston’s lead to one point (64-63). A few possessions later, Denver would actually take a one-point lead, but Houston managed to regain it. Houston suffered from serious apathy in the period and racked up enough bricks to build a mansion. At one point, Houston had made just one of their last 18 attempts from the three-point line. Harden broke that with a three of his own, and newcomer Troy Williams ended the period with a thunderous put-back dunk that gave Houston an 85-79 lead.

Houston’s struggles and apathy continued in the final period, but the Rockets managed to hold a small lead throughout. Despite an extremely ugly game (aside from the first quarter), the Rockets managed to execute just enough on both sides of the ball to pull this one out. Houston had five players score in double-figures, with three of them hauling in double-digit rebounds (Harden, Ariza, Clint Capela) as well. Patrick Beverley was one point short of being Houston’s fourth double-double player.

The Denver Nuggets, who are fighting for the last Playoff spot in the Western Conference, can’t be too thrilled with the Rockets right now. Not only did the Rockets sweep them, but also three of those four meetings occurred in the last 18 days. Should the Nuggets miss out on the Playoffs and the opportunity to get bounced in the first round by the Warriors, they would have the Rockets to thank.

Houston will next play the Detroit Pistons on Friday with nothing to play for except trying to build momentum going into the Playoffs.

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.

Wednesday’s game ball goes to James Harden.

With Harden’s hand bothering him for a couple of weeks and reported flu-like symptoms keeping him out of Sunday’s contest, it was clear to see that Harden wasn’t 100% on his game today. The stat sheet, however, would disagree as he posted a line of 30 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds, and three blocks. To add to this quiet dominance in a truly hard-to-watch game, he was actually quite efficient – shooting 42.1% from the field, including 40% from three on 10 attempts and making 11 of 15 free throws.

James Harden’s MVP case continues to build, even when the Rockets don’t seem to be fully engaged on the floor.

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