James Harden cannot be stopped. The Phoenix Suns knew this before tonight. But Harden reminded them with one of his best lessons yet.
The Beard had Forty points on 23 shots, 12 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals and another signature closeout performance, scoring 20 points in the final frame after the Rockets let the Suns back in the game (more on that later). His performance was enough for the win, 127-118.
Harden scored on a dizzying array of crossovers, three-pointers, step-back jumpers and runners in the lane, and he added in 14 free throws. He was everything he has meant to the Rockets all season long. The TNT broadcast crew were talking about how this was another MVP performance.
While that's true, this was his 24th 30-point game of the year, most in the league. It was his sixth 40-point game of the year, also tops in the league, and this time, he dropped 40 in back-to-back games, the first time he's ever done that. He did much of the damage on P.J. Tucker, who once was referred to as the "Harden Stopper," but this is now back-to-back games against the Suns where Harden has torched him and the Suns.
In the fourth quarter, Harden basically did his damage alone, but the win was a big team effort. Much of that effort came from Josh Smith, who scored 20 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, handed out 3 assists and shot 8-15 from the floor, including 2-4 from deep. Both of those made three-pointers were in the second half when the Rockets were holding off a Suns run.
About that Suns run. The Rockets scored 41 points in the first quarter, and were outscored by 19 in the second and third quarters. There was no defense to speak of from either team. Donatas Motiejunas, who started the game red hot, got into foul trouble and was a non-factor for the majority. Joey Dorsey again played like hot garbage, somehow being a -5 in the game despite being on the floor in that red hot first quarter.
Patrick Beverley finished with a 12-6-6 line, but he was torched on the defensive end. His hustle helped the Rockets close the Suns lead when Harden left briefly with a left elbow injury, but he's not nearly good enough at anything offensively to justify the defense he's been managing recently. The hustle is always appreciated, but it's just not enough anymore.
Speaking of torched, the Suns scored 118 points and shot 46.2 percent from behind the arc. Many of those shots were wide open. Eric Bledsoe scored 32 points, and for a while was trading baskets with the Beard (no one wins those contests with Harden). I don't know what the rebounding numbers would have been if the Suns had any competent big men (Alex Len was out with an injury, and Markieff Morris played center for long stretches). As it was, the Rockets won the boards battle by nine.
As always with this team, there are nits to pick. As usual, the good outweighed the bad.
I didn't touch on Corey Brewer who was once again sensational: 14 points, 7 rebounds and the most important non-Harden Rocket in the fourth quarter. Big Papa got some run and acquitted himself nicely for a change. Terrence Jones was out with flu-like symptoms and was probably daydreaming about what he would have done to the Suns' front line.
With Dwight Howard out for a substantial amount of time and Terrence Jones still very much working his way back from his leg injury, this team is far from fully formed. But behind the MVP of the league and one of Daryl Morey's best seasons yet (seriously, he looks like a genius for how he put this bench together), nothing is out of the question.
The Rockets are now 36-16 and still are in third place in the West. They play tomorrow night in Los Angeles against the Clippers on ESPN at 9:30 p.m. central time. The Clippers have had the Rockets' number the last two years, but they have no Blake and the Rockets finally have depth, when healthy. Wanna guess who the Rockets would play in the first round if the season ended today?
God I hate the Western Conference. But the Rockets have James Harden, so anything is possible.