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Harden triple-double closes out Hornets 121-114

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Harden is the fourth player in NBA history to post back-to-back, 40-point triple doubles.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets bid farewell to the Charlotte Hornets for their ninth straight win behind a historic James Harden triple-double. Harden joined Russell Westbrook, Michael Jordan and Pete Maravich as the only four players in NBA history to post back-to-back triple doubles while scoring 40 points.

The Harden landmark and the Rockets win arrived despite pissing away a 20-point fourth quarter lead, allowing Charlotte to lead by one point with two minutes left. Yet, through the genius of the Beard, the Rockets squeezed out a 122-114 victory.

With two minutes left, Frank Kaminsky drilled a three pointer to cap a 21-2 Hornets run and put Charlotte up by a single point. The Rockets had led the entire game until that point.

Houston answered right back with a Ryan Anderson three and a Patrick Beverly drive. Harden assisted on both baskets for his triple-double. Then, Harden answered a Kemba Walker three with a stone cold drive to the basket that seized the game for Houston. After some additional back-and-forth, Harden sunk two free throws to end the game, giving him 40 points on the night.

Every one of Harden’s points on Tuesday night meant a little bit more, as the Rockets played without Eric Gordon, a toe injury sidelining Houston’s second leading scorer. Ailments forced the Hornets to shuffle their rotations with the ghost of Roy Hibbert and Jeremy Lamb starting for the unavailable Cody Zeller and Nic Batum.

Gordon’s absence was dangerously apparent in the fourth quarter, when the Rockets struggled to score for six straight minutes and gave up the big Hornets run.

Houston ran the table in the first half and seemed destined for an easy win and a night of rest for Harden. Houston had a 20 point lead at halftime, 67-47, while shooting 9-16 from deep. At the intermission, Harden was just three rebounds and four assists from a first half triple double.

From there, it only got harder as the Rockets let the lead trickle to 10 points in the third, but then expand back to 20 in the fourth. Houston fell into bad habits, missing open shots, committing turnovers and allowing the Hornets any outside shot they wanted. Charlotte caught fire at just the right time, and, instead of resting Harden to prepare for tomorrow’s game in Minnesota, the Rockets had to use the starters to gut out a win.

Tonight’s game put the Rockets’ small ball evolution on full display. Much of this season, Houston has been able to run larger players out of an opponents rotation using their speed and three-point shooting. Case in point: Jonas Valanciunas two nights ago.

In the past, Houston had to deal with Dwight Howard being pushed off the court for stretches of time as opposing teams went with faster lineups and forced Dwight into pick and rolls on the defensive end that he’s now a step too slow for.

The Rockets fed a diet of speed to Charlotte’s bigs, who were forced to maintain a rotation of their three seven-footers due to injuries to regular rotation players. Sure, having Hawes and Kaminsky on the court at the same time gave Charlotte improved range, but it left them completely unable to keep up with the Rockets offense or to contest most of the threes the Rockets were launching after pick and rolls, drives or just steady ball rotation.

The Rockets play again tomorrow night in their bid for a 10th straight win, and a second 10-game winning streak of the season already, in Minnesota against the Timberwolves.