Harden hits milestone as Rockets extend surge

HOUSTON — James Harden strolled into the Toyota Center sporting a fluorescent green Grinch-colored suit and gifted MacBooks and Beats by Dre headphones to teammates before stealing away Oklahoma City‘s holiday joy Tuesday by leading the Houston Rockets to a 113-109 victory.

On the way, Harden dropped 41 points, and in scoring 30 points or more in a career-high seventh straight game, he became the first player to do that since Russell Westbrook recorded eight consecutive 30-point games in November 2016. It was also the second most in a Christmas game among active players.

“We’ve got a lot of guys playing at a high level right now,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “So many guys contributed tonight. James, like I said, is up to another level that I don’t know maybe he’s been there before. It’s hard to tell once he gets to that altitude, but he’s playing great.”

Clint Capela pulled down 23 boards to break Enes Kanter‘s record for rebounds in a Christmas Day game (22).

“Clint has gone up a level I think from last year,” D’Antoni said. “We are a more complete team, and we can handle adversity with Chris [Paul] being out and James Ennis being out because now we have more of a slate of players — but we try not to get too ahead of ourselves — playing better.”

Still, the record that mattered most to Houston at the end of this one was its 18-15 mark, as the Rockets are now three games over .500 for the first time all season with a gantlet of upcoming opponents in serious contention for postseason berths, including some of the NBA’s best in the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks.

“[Our] record isn’t where we want it to be, but it’s getting there,” Harden said. “We’re preparing for a postseason. We’re not going to be at our tip-top right now, which is a great thing, so we’ve got something to build to. We’ve had that confidence all year though, man.”

That certainly showed against a Thunder squad that led by as many as 11 points in a game that featured 15 lead changes and 12 ties.

After dominating the paint in Houston’s victory Saturday over the San Antonio Spurs, Capela duplicated the feat against Oklahoma City, gobbling up 14 rebounds in the first half alone. Capela became the first Rocket to record consecutive 20-rebound games since Charles Barkley did it in November 1996.

Oklahoma City came into the contest ranked No. 1 in the NBA in offensive rebounding, making solid defensive rebounding a priority for the Rockets.

“Every time we play them, we talk about rebounding, get it out of a defensive rebound,” Capela said. “So I knew that tonight, I had to make a statement. I just told them I had to make a statement that tonight, we are going to win that rebound battle. I feel it was really a street fight, and I had to get every rebound.”

Houston outrebounded Oklahoma City 54-52, but outpaced the visitors in second-chance points 23-9.

As for Harden, the veteran has now put together two consecutive games with at least 34 field goal attempts, becoming the first player to do that since Kobe Bryant racked up 34 or more in 2007 over a stretch of three consecutive games.

Harden hoisted 35 shots to get to his 41 points, and although he didn’t shoot it well, the guard slipped to the basket almost at will. Harden connected on 6 of 18 pull-ups for 17 points but racked up 18 on drives, where he knocked down 8 of 13. Harden missed his only catch-and-shoot opportunity. Harden also passed Kevin Durant for second among active players by producing his 56th career 40-point game.

Harden certainly put in the work for it.

According to data from Second Spectrum, Harden recorded 736 dribbles in the win over Oklahoma City, which ranks as his second most in a game this season. Harden put 868 dribbles on the floor Nov. 26 against the Wizards, and scored 54 points in that game.

Harden has put together five games this season with at least 600 dribbles, while the rest of the NBA combined has produced four such games.

“That’s been James’ game,” Thunder forward Paul George said. “His ability to just attack from outside and set himself up for open opportunities, that’s been James’ game.”

Without Paul in the lineup, Houston was winless until Saturday’s victory over San Antonio, and it has now captured two in a row without the veteran. Paul is expected to miss at least two weeks with a Grade 2 strain of his left hamstring.

With Paul out, the matchup against the Thunder marked the Rockets debut of Austin Rivers, who signed with the team Christmas Eve. Rivers played 31 minutes and scored 10 points, hitting two big 3s down the stretch. Rivers also provided solid defense against Westbrook, who finished with 21 points on 6-of-20 shooting.

D’Antoni called Rivers “a tough guy” who “gives us some grit.”

Rivers, meanwhile, was just “thankful for the opportunity” and relieved he no longer has to guard Harden, who dressed alone on the other side of the locker room listening to Tupac hits “Picture Me Rollin'” and “Changes,” followed by “Temptations.”

“No more step-backs, now I just get to smile,” Rivers said. “He did a couple [step-backs] tonight, man. I was just like, ‘Goodness gracious.’ He’s the best offensive player in the NBA with the ball in his hands. There’s nobody like him.”

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