HOUSTON -- Toward the end of the night, needing just one assist for a triple-double, James Harden turned into what he normally has been this year: playmaker.
Harden picked up his ninth triple-double of the season and 18th of his career. He became the first player in franchise history to go three consecutive games with a triple-double.
And while Harden recorded 23 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, making them sound like it’s going to be a common occurrence, he didn’t have his best game. He missed 9 of 11 shots in the first half, including going 0-for-5 from 3-point range. His final totals were 6-for-24 from the field and 2-for-11 on 3-point attempts. But Harden is so much more than shots -- he’s a passer, rebounder and a man who takes on double-teams, forcing defenses to leave somebody open.
That somebody was Eric Gordon.
He scored a season-high 31 points as he made six 3s and was 11-of-18 from the field. If we’re noticing anything about this Rockets team, which is 27-9 heading into a showdown against Oklahoma City on Thursday night, it's that other players contribute to the cause.
Houston trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half and 12 in the third quarter when it went on a burst, as Harden played facilitator.
“We feed off each other,” said Harrell, who had 14 points and nine rebounds. “When we started playing and we found out E.G. was hot, we kept going to him. James is not a selfish player, he plays the game the right way, and when you play the game the right way, you’re not going to score 30 every night. He’s still doing everything he has to do to get the job done for us.”
Gordon went on a personal 8-2 run, bringing the Rockets from within eight to two in the late stages of the third quarter. Nene had a personal run himself, 6-0, which included a key block on an Otto Porter Jr. shot attempt. Two of the buckets -- a dunk and a layup -- came courtesy of Harden passes. When the third quarter ended, Houston had taken an eight-point lead, and coach Mike D’Antoni kept Harden in the game to start the fourth. D’Antoni believes you need to stack wins so you can control your own destiny late in the season when it comes to playoff seedings, and knocking off the Wizards -- winners of four of five games -- meant another statement. And when Washington trimmed its deficit to four on a Bradley Beal jumper with 6:32 remaining, Harden needed to rest.
Houston missed its next five shots as Harden sat, and when Markieff Morris scored on a layup to tie the game at 82, it was time for Harden to return.
Houston got more shots from Gordon in the fourth, his 3 with 4:29 left gave the Rockets the lead for good, and another one with 2:14 remaining pushed the lead to eight. Ryan Anderson had a nice block on a Marcin Gortat jumper with 1:30 left that put away this competitive game.
“I know James had a little bit of an off night, but when he has an off night, I got to step up, and other guys have to step up,” Gordon said. “We just know we’re a good team.”
All that was left was for Harden to get his triple-double, which he did with 10.4 seconds to play on the lob to Harrell.
“These wins feel a lot better,” Harden said. “Obviously you want to score the ball and shoot the ball well every game, but [when] we don’t shoot the ball particularly well and you still find ways to win the game, it shows a lot about our team.”
Houston finished December 15-2, outscoring its opponents by 12.8 points per game and recorded 2,056 points, becoming the first team to score over 2,000 points in a month since Golden State in March 1992.
If last month showed us anything, the Rockets are about Harden. But when he’s off, as he was on Monday night, others can produce and push this team to an elite level. So if you want to say the Rockets are title contenders, that’s fine given how well they’ve played.
“It’s part of basketball. I mean, I wish you can shoot the ball and make every shot,” Harden said. “But it happens, and we’ve got to find ways to win games. That’s the difference between average teams and top teams.”