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Balancing act helps Harden, Rockets come out on top

HOUSTON -- In the latest round of the fight to determine the best player in the NBA, Russell Westbrook topped James Harden on points by a 49-26 margin.

But in the grand scheme, Harden and the Rockets are winning more often and doing it with a balanced group that could take Houston much further than Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. This dynamic was clearly on display Thursday night as the Rockets took down the Thunder 118-116.

The Thunder had the early advantage when they sprinted out to a 14-point lead in the first half. The Rockets then took control in the second half and pushed their lead to as much as 18. But the game came down to the fourth quarter, when Westbrook's group came up empty in the end, while Harden's team survived to seal the victory.

"That's what it's about at the end of the day, getting wins," Houston forward Trevor Ariza said. "I don't think that either James or Russell thought it was an individual battle. I think they both know the whole goal is to win, and that's what we did tonight."

In the last six minutes of the game, after Houston's double-digit lead fell to three, the Rockets went 3-for-13 from the field and missed their final five shots.

However, the closing plays favored the Rockets -- especially when Harden drew a double-team from Steven Adams and Andre Roberson with the score tied. Harden made the smart basketball play and sent a bounce pass to Nene Hilario, who was fouled.

Nene, who played his best game of the season with 18 points and was plus-12 in the box score, made two foul shots to push the Rockets' lead to two with 0.7 seconds to play.

On the final inbounds pass, Thunder center Enes Kanter couldn't convert the alley-oop that would have sent the game to overtime.

"We got a stop, we switched off," Rockets guard Patrick Beverley said. "They were trying to confuse us a little bit, because they had a shooter out there, and we switched off James. James made a good contest, and we were able to get the ball back, but you've got to give James a lot of credit for being that competitive. Russ was out of his mind tonight."

If we know anything about this Rockets team, it's that Harden is getting plenty of help from people who are stars in their own right.

Eric Gordon, whom the Rockets keep pushing for the All-Star Game, scored 22 points off the bench on Thursday, the same amount as the Thunder bench scored in total. At one point during the fourth quarter, Gordon had 22 points and the Thunder bench had seven.

When the night ended, Houston had six players in double figures, led by Harden, who is finally getting to play with a team that complements his game.

"It's fun, as you can see the Warriors play like that now last few years," Harden said. "It's fun, it's exciting and the crowd is into it. Knocking down 3s and getting layups. We have the right personnel and the right guys for it, and it fits to what we're doing."

Last season was not fun. It was a mess. And the Rockets' front office cleaned it up. The team provided their best player with a coach whose offensive system enhances what he is able to do on the court and added players who can take pressure off him.

Gordon has been a key complement, putting ego aside to become the sixth man and help the Rockets storm to a 28-9 record. Ryan Anderson, who had an off night Thursday with 12 points, averaged 17.2 points the previous 12 games. Coach Mike D'Antoni and his assistants have produced a solid rotation without starting center Clint Capela (fractured leg) and have received strong production from Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker, Nene and Ariza.

Beverley, who Harden calls the "head of the snake," knew from the beginning that D'Antoni would make a difference.

"The first couple of workouts, just his swagger, how he carries himself, he instilled the confidence in us that we could go out there and beat anybody, and we believe it, and that's what we're trying to do -- take care of business," Beverley said.

And the Rockets -- after going 15-2 in December, during which D'Antoni was named coach of the month and Harden player of the month -- are still rolling in January.

Harden's confidence level in his team has never been higher than it was on Thursday night. He's such a willing passer, of his 25 assist opportunities, 11 led to uncontested looks.

"I know how hard these guys work individually, and as a team, we're all on the same page. Each and every guy comes into the game to play their role at a high level, which makes my job easier to just do what I do," Harden said. "I know what (my teammates are) going to bring to the table every single night; it gives me that confidence and comfort."