After two terrible games, James Harden was once again MVP’ish in his performance, leading the Houston Rockets to a big 110-95 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Playing a third consecutive home game, the Rockets were coming off losses to the Pelicans and Hawks. Harden himself shot only 33.3% from the field in the two games combined following a 41 point performance in a close win over Denver. Getting a couple of days to rest from the most recent loss, Harden looked as good as he’s ever been, once again having the kind of game that will generate discussions on where he is right now when it comes to the MVP race.
He scored 44 points, tying a season high in an excellent December for him (30 points per game), hitting 14-of-26 from the field, 4-of-9 from beyond the arc, 12-of-13 from the line, adding 7 assists and 5 steals while turning the ball over just once. It was only the fourth time in Rockets history for a player to go 40-5-5 (steals, not rebounds) in a game, and a second for Harden. He ended up having 31 points, 5 assists and steals at half time. No other player has had such a game all season long.
Dwight Howard suggested after the game that Harden was in MVP mode because of what happened last year in the playoffs against the Blazers (losing the series despite home court advantage and a bad series for Harden) but for Harden it was mostly about putting the last two games and home losses behind him. Maybe there was some individual revenge thing going on, but even if there was, Harden wasn’t going to talk about it.
The Blazers were without LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, which made things a lot easier. Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard started in the lineup and created a very awkward looking starting five. Leonard didn’t have such a bad game and the Blazers were actually quite successful with him on the floor, but overall too many combinations tried out by Stotts simply didn’t work. Damian Lillard was off his mark (6-of-16 from the field) and Nicolas Batum scored just two points. Without Aldridge, that kind of contribution from the key players remaining wasn’t going to cut it.
For the Rockets, Dwight Howard had an easy time in the paint with 16 points and 13 rebounds, even finishing with 100% from the line, hitting 2-of-2. Howard is often ridiculed for his inability to be consistent from the line, sometimes even being a liability to his team in certain moments. Over the last four games, Howard has made 71.4% of his free throw attempts. He has had lapses back to uglier depths before, but there’s always hope this serenity will last.
Corey Brewer, now officially a Rockets player, scored 12 points coming off the bench. Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas finished in double figures as well. As the last four games have shown, even with Howard playing, the Rockets continue to depend heavily on Harden playing like one of the best players in the league. Now they need to hope he doesn’t shift from absolute monstrous to terrible from game to game, but settles for something a bit more reliable and less nerve wracking.