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Harden drops 37, Rockets win 99-87

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James Harden was on the bench for most of the fourth quarter. As a result, Houston only scored 19 points.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden has been an offensive machine recently, averaging 37 points and almost eight assists per game in the Rockets' last four match ups.

And Houston has certainly needed his offensive surge, especially as the team continues to deal with injuries to key players.

Last night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers was no different.

Dwight Howard didn't play due to a right ankle sprain (we were saved from constant boo-ing), so Harden stepped up his game and tried to get everyone involved in the offense. He helped lead Houston to go up 30-15 by the end of the first quarter as he was able to slip into the lane and find the open man with relative ease.

The Lakers as a team barely outscored Harden in the first quarter, 15-13.

The Beard's court vision has improved massively since he became a Houston Rocket just a few short years ago. He can quickly thrash his way to the basket because he is very strong for a shooting guard, but has the site and ability to find the open player mid-air in order to get the best shot available. Compared to last season, it helps profoundly that Harden plays with a point guard who doesn't have a ball-dominant style, so the ball gets to stay in Harden's hands for more plays. Hence, his scoring, assists and field goals made per game averages have all risen from last year.

We often see star players take their games to the next level offensively, and Harden has certainly done that, but few buy into the idea of consistently playing defense, and it seems Harden is finally realizing the importance of getting stops, particularly at the end of games:

"It's my job to be not only a scorer, but a facilitator. Make sure everybody is happy, getting good shots. We've got to do a better job closing out games. It's definitely getting there. We're more than capable of being the best defensive team in the league, but we've got to focus on it every game."

Would he have said that a few years ago? Or even last year?

Probably not.

But just because Harden has taken the leap to play consistently on both sides of the floor doesn't mean that the Rockets can finally make it to the Western Conference Finals off his play alone.

Trevor Ariza, who won a championship with the Lakers in 2009, shot 3-of-14 from the field and one-for-eight from the three-point line. Patrick Beverley shot 3-of-10 for the night; The Rockets as a team shot 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from three.

Against the Lakers—one of the worst defensive teams this season.

I can't rag on Josh Smith for this game because he shot 5-of-10 on the night and even made a three pointer, but he certainly falls in the Must-Play-Consistently-On-Both-Sides-Of-The-Court-Every-Night category as well. Houston needs to figure out whether playing him with Howard is effective (it isn't), whether they should keep him on the perimeter (they shouldn't) or in the paint (even placed there, he clogs the block for Donatas Motiejunas and Kostas Papanikolaou to get good positioning or make a move in the post).

There's still plenty of time to figure things out with this squad. Smith is still trying to find his place on the floor and his niche in the offense, and Howard should be able to get healthy, back in shape and in good chemistry with the team by March.