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Harden and Howard lead Rockets past Thunder

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James Harden and Dwight Howard combined for 63 points and out dueled Russell Westbrook and Enes Kanter in a nationally-televised Easter Sunday game.

James Harden shoots over Russell Westbrook in a battle of MVP candidates
James Harden shoots over Russell Westbrook in a battle of MVP candidates
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden and Dwight Howard showed up on the national stage today, with the Rockets two stars turning on the juice in what was hopefully a sign of things to come in the postseason. Harden scored 41 and Howard contributed 22 in a 115-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden went head-to-head with fellow MVP candidate Russell Westbrook and came out on top, and in the process, also increased his lead for the scoring title over Westbrook (40 points) ever so slightly.

The Rockets led most of the way, but in a recurring theme this season, never quite could put the Thunder away. Oklahoma City got to within one point in the fourth quarter despite being down double digits just several minutes before. The game was in doubt up until Westbrook's desperation airball to end the game, and the Rockets withstood a furious Thunder comeback to move a full game ahead of Memphis for the number two seed in the West.

1ST QUARTER

The Rockets came out going to Howard in the post to counter the Thunder's pick and roll game between Westbrook and Steven Adams, with the results not pretty. After a nice dunk, Dwight lofted up an ugly-looking hook shot and committed an awkward out-of-bounds turnover on his first three touches, while Westbrook started 4-4 from the field and also fed Adams as the Thunder jumped out to a quick 10-3 lead.

After that, it was all Rockets for the rest of the quarter. The Rockets quickly went to the lob game, with both Howard and Terrence Jones getting several easy alley-oops to spark the squad. In addition, Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza nagged Westbrook into three first-quarter turnovers to help lead an 18-0 Rockets run that made the game 27-17 after one quarter.

The Rockets held Oklahoma City to 33 percent shooting and turned five total Thunder turnovers into nine fast break points, as the Thunder looked a bit shell shocked despite Westbrook's 12 points in the quarter.

2ND QUARTER

The Rockets continued to impose their will to start the second quarter, with Howard making his presence felt both in the post and off of Josh Smith alley-oops. Smith had three assists in four plays and it was his feeding of Howard that forced the Thunder bigs into overcommitting and into foul trouble.

Adams and Mitch McGary were sent to the bench with three fouls each, and the Thunder were pushed into a small ball approach with Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow on the court alongside Enes Kanter, and it turned out to be the best decision Thunder coach Scott Brooks could have made.

Attacking the Rockets lack of front court defense and depth, Dion Waiters drove and shot his way to 10 points in the quarter, Morrow began to heat up from downtown, with Westbrook continuing to do what Westbrook does in getting to the bucket and assisting his teammates.

The Thunder managed to squeeze the lead down before the half, only James Harden stepped up to end the period and keep the Rockets in front 55-47. However, the Thunder uncovered a Rocket weakness with the small ball lineup and would look to capitalize on it in the third.

Harden had 17 points on 6-12 shooting in the half to go with 2 rebounds and 3 assists. While Westbrook had the slight MVP battle edge with 18 points on 7-11 shooting and also added 7 assists. Howard had 14 at intermission for the Rockets.

3RD QUARTER

The Rockets continued to attack the Thunder interior to start the third, immediately sending both Adams and McGary back to the bench with their fourth fouls, and the Rockets used more Thunder turnovers and some nice play by Smith in the post to extend their lead to 12.

However, the hot shooting of the Oklahoma City small lineup kept the Thunder within striking distance. Anthony Morrow had 11 points in the quarter, including hitting three shots from downtown.

The Thunder also switched to the Hack-a-Dorsey strategy, slowing things down and mucking things up with one of the uglier non-rules in the NBA. But it's legal and it worked, bringing the Thunder back to within five points with 1:30 left in the quarter.

The Rockets responded by immediately pulling Dorsey and finished the third quarter up 83-77. Harden and Westbrook continued their classic duel, finishing the quarter with 31 and 29 points respectively.

4TH QUARTER

Harden sat to start the fourth quarter, so the Rockets kept themselves afloat by again going to Howard and Smith in the post, with the duo combining for 10 points while Harden was on the bench and to also foul out Adams with 6:04 still to go.

The Thunder countered by riding their guards, as Morrow dropped in two more triples and Westbrook nabbed a triple double with 6:00 left to play.  It was Westbrook's ninth triple-dip since the All-Star Break, which is tied for second most in league history. The Thunder closed the Rocket lead to two points with 5:30 left, and the fun was just ready to begin.

Kanter closed it to a one-point game with 4:30 left on a put back and three-point play off of one of his nine offensive rebounds, only to have Harden counter with a three to keep Houston ahead.

It was then Westbrook's turn, dropping a three of his own to tie the game at 100 with 3:00 to play.  However, James Harden, not to be undone on the national stage, answered with two triples in 36 seconds to put Houston up 108-104 before fouling out at the 35-second mark.

Going down the stretch, things stayed tight, with Morrow and Westbrook each hitting another three, but Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry and Corey Brewer combined to go 7-8 on free throws in the closing seconds to keep the Thunder at bay.

Westbrook airballed a desperation game-tying three, and the Rockets walked off the Thunder's home court with a huge 115-112 victory in front of the nation on Easter Sunday.

Despite Westbrook's 40-13-11 triple double, Harden extended his lead ever so slightly in the scoring race by putting in 41, and his efficiency highlights why he's the MVP frontrunner over Westbrook (or Curry for that matter). Harden's 41 points came on just 22 shots, as he went 12-22 from the field, 6-9 from three and 11-13 from the line. While Westbrook's 40 came on 12-29 from the field, 4-11 from three and 12-15 at the stripe.

The battle of big men between Howard and Kanter came down to efficiency as well. Kanter had 21 points and 17 rebounds, but shot just 9-19 from the field, including missing 8 buckets from 10 feet or closer. Howard had 22 points and 8 rebounds on 10-15 shooting in just 23 minutes of play (Kanter played 38).

The Rockets received major support from Josh Smith (14 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists) and Trevor Ariza (12 points, 9 rebounds and plenty of attitude and hard-nosed play), with Joey Dorsey (7 rebounds), Pablo Prigioni (5 steals) and Jones (3 blocks) all stepping up in various ways at times.

Morrow had 22 for the Thunder, including hitting six threes, and Waiters added 14.

QUICK HITS

- Harden had his league-leading 34th game of 30 plus points and also his league-leading 10th game of 40 plus points.

- Despite Howard playing large portions of the game above the rim, something still just looks off visually with his explosion, and one has to hope he simply needs a few more games to get his sea legs.

- Prigioni finally contributed on the defensive side for Houston, nabbing 5 steals and getting in on the lane-jumping that's been the second unit's calling card all season. Let's hope it continues.

- Despite Houston moving a full game ahead of Memphis, only 2.5 games separate the 2 and 6 seeds. And with each team having 5 or 6 games still to play, the West seeding is still very much up for grabs.

- Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Happy Spring!