LOS ANGELES-Get out of the way and let James do his thing. That seems to be the one constant that the Houston Rockets have been able to use all season against their opponents. Guess what? It’s been working so good that Harden is considered the leading candidate to win the NBA’s MVP award this season.
Harden and the Rockets gave the Los Angeles Clippers another taste of that running theme Sunday at Staples Center with a 100-98 win. Harden did his damage with a game-high 34 points. On a afternoon in which the long missing Blake Griffin made his return to the starting lineup, Harden was far and away the best player on the court as he added seven assists and seven rebounds to compliment his all-around performance.
“It was very important for us just go out there and play well,” Harden said after the victory. “These last two games we kind of struggled a little bit but we got our pop back a little bit today and it was a good win for us.”
It wasn’t so much what Harden did from the field that sapped the life of the Clippers’ defense. Harden finished the game converting a not-so-impressive 7 field goals out of 16 attempts. Where he hurt the Clippers as he has done all season against other opponents is get to the charity stripes more than anyone in the building.
Harden, with his usual assortment of moves to the basket and nearly indefensible fadeaway jump shot, got to the free throw line 18 times, making 17 of them. Despite the Harden hype, the Clippers were still in this contest until the last seconds of the game. Even with a choppy offensive flow through four quarters, the Clippers had an opportunity to send the game into overtime or even win it outright.
Chris Paul, with the time dwindling down on the clock went up for a sure shot at point-black range. But with defenders running at him, Paul missed and the Clippers had to deal with suffering their 25th defeat of the season.
Paul led the Clippers with 23 points. Unfortunately, the defeat offset another big day for center DeAndre Jordan, who recorded 20 rebounds for the game.
“We need to play harder and be more aggressive,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought we were distracted with everything but the game. I told them at halftime that the referees have nothing to do with why we are losing. We were missing shots and we were frustrated.”
Part of that distraction could have been trying too hard to work Griffin back in the flow of things. Griffin wound up with 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in his first game back. The rust was obvious at times as Griffin looked a bit uncomfortable and tentative when he got the ball in his hands. Griffin also had five of the team’s 20 turnovers for the game. Houston committed only 12 in 48 minutes.
Rivers, though, isn’t worried about the team’s chemistry being upset now that his superstar is back in the fold.
“Our chemistry will be fine,” Rivers said. “I am sure we will have our growing pains, but overall we will be good. DeAndre (Jordan) and Blake (Griffin) have played together for a long time.”
For his part, Griffin said he didn’t have any unrealistic expectations for himself in his return.
“The last two weeks were slow, but I had to put in a lot of tedious work to even dribble a basketball and shoot,” Griffin said. “As far as going out [to play today], I knew it wasn’t going to be great, not having contact for a little over five weeks. I knew I was going to be off, but I wanted to do a better job of taking care of the ball. A big part of my problems today was turnovers. It didn’t go as I wanted it to go, but I wasn’t expecting to come out and have 30 [points] and 15 [rebounds]. It’s a rhythm thing.”