When the goings get tough, James Harden is always there for the Houston Rockets.
And the bearded man was there for his team again Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder at home, scoring 41 points to lead the desperate Rockets to a 118-110 victory. Harden also had nine assists and three steals while Trevor Ariza added 18 points and seven rebounds.
OKC, sealed to the third spot for the upcoming Western Conference Playoffs, had not much to fight for, but that didn't mean they were not on their game. Kevin Durant had another expert scoring performance with 33 points and an octet of boards, and Russell Westbrook fell one assist shy of his 17th triple-double of the season, finishing with 23 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists, along with two steals. However, the duo combined for 14 of the Thunder's 19 turnovers.
Enes Kanter contributed 16 points and six rebounds off the bench for Oklahoma City Thunder in his 18 minutes on the court. His big play in the paint as a reserve was countered by Houston's Clint Capela, who swatted away four shots and recorded nine points and six rebounds to provide an electric presence inside.
The Thunder began play in this one with a steal and slam by Westbrook and Andre Roberson. Durant scored two buckets to give OKC a 6-3 lead, but the Rockets scored eight unanswered to spring a 14-4 run and take a seven-point advantage.
Oklahoma City drew quite a few trips to the foul line in the first quarter and brought the game even at 23-apiece with 90 seconds remaining in the opening period. Josh Smith scored five quick points and the teams traded long-range shots to end the quarter at 31-26 in Houston's favor.
Loud City started the second with a 10-2 run to reclaim the lead, but the Rockets were able to claw back and tie it with 6:21 to go as Harden drove and scored. After Westbrook and Ariza exchanged threes, Houston scored seven straight to go up 50-43, but the Thunder mounted another 10-2 run to end the half back on top.
Westbrook sunk an attempt with 1.4 seconds left on the clock to put the score at 53-52 heading into the locker rooms.
Momentum Swing For OKC Is Matched
The third quarter was another tough start for the Rockets. From the ten-minute mark and onwards for the next three minutes, Oklahoma City scored a remarkable 12 straight points to grab a double-digit lead, 69-57.
But too quick was Houston to answer, Harden and Capela leading the way on a Rockets 12-2 run to cut the deficit to just one possession at 71-69. Kyle Singler helped the Thunder stretch the lead back out to six before the Rockets controlled the final two-and-a-half minutes of play, holding Oklahoma City scoreless up until the last tenth of a second of the period.
The Rockets took an 80-79 lead with 4.1 to go in the third but Durant hurried on the other end and drew a foul from Andrew Goudelock, behind the three-point arc, giving the ice-cold free throw shooter a trio of attempts from the line with 0.1 to go in the quarter.
KD sunk all three to make it 82-80 OKC after 36 minutes.
Final Period Struggles Continue For Thunder As Rockets Prevail
The two sides continued tight play in the opening segments of the fourth, going blow-for-blow, Oklahoma City maintaining the slimmest of leads. James Harden tied it at 93 with a pair of three-pointers as 8:39 remained, and K.J. McDaniels (10 points) grabbed the Rockets a lead by hitting a pair from the stripe.
Oklahoma City scored seven more unanswered to regain a five-point lead, 100-95, but then Houston really found some mojo. Harden and backcourt pairing Patrick Beverley (12 points) strung together some buckets and flipped the margin to put the Thunder in a hole.
The score was 102-97, OKC leading, with 5:50 to go, but glance at the scoreboard five minutes and change later, and it read 112-104, Rockets. The Thunder went ice cold down the stretch, failing to find a basket and instead finding opponents and turning over the ball. Houston mounted a 15-2 run to grab a commanding lead with 30 ticks left, and from that point, Oklahoma City was sunk and the Rockets had grabbed a key W.
For the Thunder, it was their NBA-leading thirteenth loss after leading at the end of the third quarter. Had Durant not gotten those three free throws to close out the third period, perhaps the same curse would not have come back to haunt Oklahoma City.
While that game made no difference standings-wise for the Thunder, it gave Houston a big victory as they try to fight their way back into the playoff picture in the West. They sit at ninth behind the Utah Jazz, who at 38-38 are just a half-a-game up thanks to the loss column.
It'll be a nail-biter for the final few spots in this race to the postseason, but with Houston's laxed final five games against opponents a combined 120 games below .500, things are looking favorable for Harden and company.