James Harden takes over, keeps Rockets' playoff hopes alive

PORTLAND, Ore. -- He sat at the far end of a group of lockers, feet in a blue bucket filled with ice, knees wrapped in ice, two towels covering his body.

James Harden was tired. Exhausted. Drained. Fatigued. Enervated.

It was worth it.

The Houston Rockets' guard was everything his team needed Thursday night scoring 46 points in 46 mesmerizing minutes to deliver a dramatic, lost-for-words, season-saving, 119-105 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

"Unreal. Guy is unreal, what he did tonight, is very, very, very special," Trevor Ariza said. "We needed him to do it. He wanted to do what he did and that's the type of person and player he is, always steps up at big times when we needed to."

Houston's victory pushed it to the eighth seed, now a half-game behind the seventh-seeded Blazers and, look at this, a game behind the sixth-seeded Dallas Mavericks.

"It helps us, man," Harden said. "It gives us that confidence that if we go out there and play like we did in that second half against any team we're capable of a lot of great things."

Harden's minutes were the second-highest of his season and he played the entire second half as the Rockets rallied from a 21-point deficit to outscore the Blazers, 70-41.

Harden made 11 of 13 shots from the field in the second half, scoring 34 points for a plus-29 in the box score.

"He was huge," Jason Terry said of Harden. "I can see it on his face, he played [43] minutes the other night [in a loss at Utah], he played 46 minutes again tonight. We ask him to do a lot for us, on both ends of the floor; it's why he's the franchise, man. He's going to deliver. One thing about him, him and Dwight [Howard] we can count on, Trevor Ariza, we can count on. It's the other guys that we have to get our level up and once that happens we have a special group. We have a group that can do something special and it's going to take a collective effort."

The Rockets played badly in the first half as the Blazers, one of the hottest teams in the league stormed through to take a commanding 64-49 advantage. In the second half, the defensive intensity increased starting with Ariza's play on Damian Lillard, who, probably next to Stephen Curry, was taking over the league in the last two weeks of the season.

When Ariza was finished with Lillard, he scored 23 points on just 6-of-20 shooting from the field.

"A lot of sets that we like to run, we try to get into them at different parts of the court, but Ariza was guarding me and he's a big defender," said the 6-foot-3 Lillard on being covered by the 6-8 Ariza. "A long defender and sometimes when you try to get a handback or a backdoor, you don't want to mess around with that. So they disrupted our offense."

Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff stuck with Corey Brewer, Howard, Harden, Terry, Ariza for the entire fourth quarter, and really he had no choice. A loss would have just crushed this Rockets team, desperate for anything to salvage what's left of the season.

Bickerstaff put his best players and most experienced group on the floor with the season basically on the line.

Houston was down seven to start the fourth until Harden scored on a drive with 7:40 to play tying the score at 95. For the discussions about Howard's and Harden's struggles on the floor, it was the man with the long beard sending a lob pass to his big man, for an alley-oop dunk giving the Rockets their first lead of the game with 7:15 left at 97-95.

Howard got a steal in a scramble for the ball on the next possession and Brewer nailed a 3-pointer for a five-point advantage. After two consecutive shot-clock violations by the Rockets, Brewer and Harden made a combined four foul shots.

Then the finisher.

Harden nailed a step-back 15-footer, something he practices in pregame warm-ups, to seal the victory, a 106-98 lead.

Portland went to a Hack-A-Dwight strategy to cut the deficit, but it was too late.

"It's hard to be desperate," Howard said. "I think we have to go into every game with the same desperation that we had tonight to get the win. If we do that we'll have a great opportunity to win every single night."


Harden was needed this night, and while the MVP chants came for Lillard from the Moda Center crowd, the Rockets' shooting guard was the real MVP Thursday.

"If we could have gave him a break, we would have gave him a break," Bickerstaff said. "But the way he was going he was getting busy, so we didn't want to get in his way. I thought the timeouts came at the right times, so it gave him an opportunity to catch his breath. He was exhausted. Great players, when it's winning time, find a way to dig down and he found a way to dig down and obviously you see the result."