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James Harden takes over third quarter as Rockets beat the Grizzlies

HOUSTON -- Saturday night's third quarter was another reminder why James Harden is an MVP candidate.

He scored 20 of the team's 38 points in the third as the Houston Rockets took care of the Memphis Grizzlies 123-108. Harden, who leads the NBA with 56.1 points produced per game, had a hand in 30 third-quarter points.

"Unbelievable," Trevor Ariza said. "I see it every day. I'm [accustomed] to it. That's what he does."

Harden finished the game with 33 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds. He took 15 shots from the field in getting that point total while also hitting six free throws. It's the 20th time this season Harden produced 30-plus points and 10-plus assists.

Harden's season is going so smoothly that he seems to be having fun.

"Yeah, that's what I've been doing," he said. "I've been scoring and just being aggressive. I'm a playmaker, as well as a point guard, so I just pick and choose when I'm able to make plays. And in that third quarter was just about being aggressive."

As the Rockets built a double-digit lead, the Grizzlies resorted to the hack-a-somebody to claw back into the game. Center Clint Capela and his 52.8 free throw percentage became the fourth-quarter target. With Memphis down 18, the Grizzlies fouled Capela intentionally five times. He responded by going 8-of-10 from the line.

The best Memphis could do was get within 14 points on a Troy Daniels layup with 3:28 to play. By that time the game was basically done, as Capela finished with a career-high 24 points while also grabbing 11 rebounds.

"He's got so much talent. He's probably the guy that I get mad at the most because 24 and 11, to me he could have 35 and 20," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "But that's just how good he is. It's not that he's not producing. He's producing a lot, and he'll keep getting better."

After losing its first two meetings to Memphis, Houston has taken care of the last two meetings in a convincing matter. On Jan. 21, the Rockets won 119-95 on the road as Sam Dekker made his first career start and scored a career-high 30 points while Ryan Anderson sat at home nursing a stomach virus.

On Saturday night, the Rockets withstood the taller Grizzlies by doing what they always do, take 3s (42 attempts) push the pace and score (17 fast-break points) and use Harden to take control when necessary.

When Memphis bore down on Houston's outside shooters, Harden became the scorer the Rockets needed, as he took defenders off the dribble for buckets and 3-point shots.

It's a rather easy game for Harden to play. If these two teams meet in the postseason -- the third-seeded Rockets would face the sixth-seeded Grizzlies if the season ended today -- Harden just might continue his present course of dominance.

There is no guarantee that the Rockets will face the Grizzlies in the opening round of the postseason. When rotations get tighter and the games mean more, the unpredictability increases.

So winning these games against playoff opponents could be viewed as statement wins.

"Of course, but it doesn't matter who we're playing," Harden said. "We're winding down to the end of the season, and it's very important for us to take care of business and lock in. We can face any of these opponents at any point in the postseason. We just want to continue to get better and win as many games as we can."