Feb 1, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) brings the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Cavaliers 106-92. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Rockets Fall to Thunder, James Harden Stays Hot

Mar 11, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) warms up prior to action against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

After an absolutely incredible, come-from-behind overtime victory against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night, the Houston Rockets failed to continue their winning ways against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night.

Playing without Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who dropped 42 on 12-22 shooting, including 5-8 from three-point range.

At the half, Houston trailed by 15 points, which proved to be too big of a hole to dig themselves out of. James Harden had another big game, scoring 28 points while also dishing out nine assists and grabbing eight boards. However, other than Harden, only seldom-used wing Francisco Garcia was able to score efficiently from the field.

Chandler Parsons poured in 19, but shot just 6-17 from the floor. Dwight Howard had one of his worst games of 2014, scoring just nine points on 4-12 from the field and 1-6 from the line. Without Perkins, Howard had every advantage imaginable against rookie Steven Adams and former bust Hasheem Thabeet, but was unable to come through for the Rockets.

The loss makes Houston 0-3 against the Thunder on the season, giving OKC the tiebreaker if both teams finished with the same record (which is unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility).

Even with the loss, Houston is still a contender in the Western Conference. I mean, aren’t Rockets fans (like myself) getting a little greedy thinking we can beat the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder? Probably, but that doesn’t make the loss any easier to swallow.

The biggest bright spot in the loss was Harden. The defending two-time NBA player of the week (something no Rocket has ever done in consecutive weeks) is at the top of his game, as his improvement from long range and in the assist category are making the Rockets an even scarier team to see come spring.

Since February 1st, Harden has been absolutely on fire, leading Houston to a 13-3 record (the only losses came to the Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, all on the road). During the stretch, Harden has scored 18 or more points in each game, including nine 25+ point games and a pair of 40-point performances. Harden’s numbers have improved across the board, as he’s averaging 28 points (49% FG, 42% 3pt, 86% FT), 6.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.1 steals in those 15 games.

Offensively, it’s hard to find anyone better in the league than Harden, aside from Durant and LeBron James. Early in the season, Harden struggled from long range, hitting around 30% for the first 2+ months of the year. In watching Harden, it’s clear that his 3-ball sets up his drives; When he’s getting the 3 to drop, he’s at his best.

Harden should be given credit for how much he’s improved in every facet of his game since October. He’s learning to use his teammates more (especially Howard with the lob), while also playing at a quicker pace, which is a key to Houston’s offensive success. Last year, Harden was the only guy on Houston who could consistently create his own shot, and because of that, he developed a few bad habits. With Howard in town and Parsons becoming a borderline All-Star, Harden has help on the offensive end, and he’s finally starting to figure that out.

Also, late in games, The Beard is lethal, as the Blazers found out on Sunday night (just in case you were hibernating, Harden hit a game-tying 3 after Houston in-bounded the ball with 8 seconds on the clock, before leading the Rockets to victory in overtime). If you’re saying to yourself “that’s just one game,” then ask the Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans what they think of The Beard in the clutch (especially the Wiz; Both games Harden took over late in a big way, putting Houston on his back and leading them to victory).

Defensively, Harden still struggles to stay in front of quicker guards, but coach Kevin McHale has done a better job finding matchups that cater to Harden’s defensive deficiencies of late. Despite his size (6’5”), Harden is a great post defender, using his stocky build to keep defenders from backing him down in the post.

With Harden playing at his best, Houston will be a tough out for anyone in the Western Conference. As the Blazers continue their slow drift back to Earth, it’s becoming clear that the West is a four-horse race between the Rockets, Thunder, Spurs and Clippers. Each team has a pair of superstars and a solid supporting cast, which means we as fans will be getting our money’s worth in the second round (if all goes as planned; The Golden State Warriors might put a damper on those plans, though).

Houston continues the hardest stretch on their schedule Thursday in Chicago, before heading to Miami for a rematch with the defending champs on Sunday. After that, the schedule lightens up, with Houston playing a pair of home games against the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves, before playing three Eastern Conference teams (Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Bobcats, Philadelphia 76ers).

Tags: Houston Rockets James Harden Kevin Durant NBA Playoffs

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