HOUSTON - James Harden was exorcising whatever demons remained from his 2012 NBA Finals experience seemingly every time down the floor. With his team on the ropes, the 23-year-old slipped into superhero mode and singlehandedly brought the Rockets back from the brink. Step-backs, spot-ups, crossovers – everything came together in a perfect amalgam of beautiful basketball.
Even LeBron James, only one of the best wing defenders on the planet, appeared powerless to stop him. Miami’s lead, once as large as 17 points, dwindled to three with 1:10 remaining after the latest salvo that had been unleashed amid Harden’s 16-point fourth quarter barrage. Suddenly the Rockets found themselves in position to contemplate the remarkable: a potential sweep of a back-to-back that included a matchup against the well-rested defending champs on the road. As improbable as that notion had appeared when Houston trailed 79-62 midway through the third quarter, absolutely nothing seemed impossible now.
In the game’s final minute, however, Harden proved human after all. A tough charging call drawn by Mario Chalmers brought him back down to earth. And with their hero temporarily grounded and increasingly swarmed by a Miami defense determined to make someone, anyone else beat them, the Rockets found themselves unable to summon a satisfying solution. Another charge resulted, then a swatted shot and that was all Miami needed to hold off hard-charging Houston for a 114-108 victory.
“We had a tough run scoring the basketball,” said Harden, who finished with a jaw-dropping stat line that included 36 points on 10-16 shooting, 12 rebounds and seven assists. “We even got stops, but the big plays where we needed to make a play, they got stops, so that was the difference in the ballgame.”
Truth be told, however, the game was likely lost far earlier. The Rockets began the fourth quarter trailing by six and immediately cut their deficit in half with a Patrick Patterson corner trey. LeBron James, who had spent the entire game up to that point proving precisely why he is the league’s preeminent player, was on the bench getting his only breather of the second half. This, then, was Houston’s golden opportunity to seize control and wrestle the steering wheel away from Miami. Instead, the Rockets went into an offensive funk at the worst possible time, suffering through a stretch that saw them score just two points over the course of the next six-plus minutes of action. Houston fell behind by 12 once more, setting the stage for Harden’s heroics to ultimately fall agonizingly short.
The loss marked Houston’s seventh straight at the hands of the Heat, and also represented the second time this season that the Rockets have fallen in heartbreaking fashion to Miami after digging themselves out of a 17-point hole. To be sure, this Houston team is far past the point of deriving any satisfaction whatsoever from mere moral victories. The Rockets will find no solace in the fact that every member of its starting five registered double-digit scoring for the third time in four games, or that they proved yet again they can stand toe-to-toe with the defending champs (who, it should be noted, were without the services of an under the weather Chris Bosh Wednesday night).
Big picture, however, the Rockets’ rapid growth in what was believed by many to be a transitional year continues to be nearly as astounding as the show their young superstar put on in South Beach. A strong argument can be made that Houston has become one of the ten best teams in the NBA and if they aren’t actually in that category yet, the Rockets are undeniably right on the cusp.
Little wonder, then, that the Heat walked away from their hard fought win full of praise and respect for their opponents. Prior to the game, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra referred to the Rockets as “the modern day Phoenix Suns” and after watching Harden torch him and his teammates all night long, James left no doubt regarding his feelings on Harden’s burgeoning status as one of the league’s signature players.
“He has made superstar status,” said James, who finished with 32 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds. “He is worthy of the max contract he received. He can do a little bit of everything."
“They have no quit in them and it starts with their head coach ... this team never gives up. They had 140 points last night and tied the NBA record in threes, so we knew we had to defend the three, but we made enough plays down the stretch and got enough stops.”
(on the last two minutes)
We had some breakaways and we had some stuff we could’ve done, we just didn’t make the plays.
(on Harden’s ability to score despite all the attention he received from Miami’s defense)
He had a great defender on him and he still had a great game. He’s a helluva basketball player. He can make shots, he’s a tough kid, he rebounded his [butt] off out there and did a lot of good stuff.
On the game:
“They buckled down, and they took away what we were trying to get. For example, the (late) charge that we got, that is just them taking away the first option (which is driving to the basket and getting a hoop). They take away the first option and make you get to the weak side. They make you play to the second option. They’re veterans and they’re experienced. I felt like we did a good job of fighting back tonight and not giving up. We made crucial errors down the line. We didn’t get defensive rebounds. It was the little things like that.”
On James Harden:
“He’s definitely a great player. He had a heck of a game tonight, and unfortunately it went to waste with the loss. He kept us in it. He did everything that he could. He had a great game tonight.”
On the game:
“We had a tough run scoring the basketball. When we needed to make big plays, they got stops. That was the difference in the ballgame.”
On his play:
“I try to get my teammates open shots (early in the game) so the defense kind of open up a little bit. I have more opportunities. It was a different situation when I was coming off the bench (in Oklahoma City) as the third option. Now, I’m the main option. My confidence has to be up to show my teammates that we can come out here and win these games.”
On Dwyane Wade:
“He’s a tremendous scorer. They are a tremendous team. They have a lot of guys who can score the basketball.”
On LeBron James:
“He’s one of the top players in the league. I just try to go out and compete with him. On the offensive end, I try to attack and make my teammates better.”
MIAMI HEAT COACH ERIC SPOELSTRA
On the game:
“We held them to 108 [points]. That team can score. Even when we had an opportunity in the second half to get a double-digit lead they came right back. That’s what they do. They stay aggressive, they stay confident. It took some big plays at the end but our guys responded.”
“What I liked tonight was that we had a lot of contributions and you don’t necessarily see that in the boxscore.”
On the Heat’s two charges to end the game:
“You have to have great timing, great courage to put your body in there to get those charges. Those were big in the fourth quarter.”
“It was good to see us close the game out with some defensive stops.”
On James Harden:
“He (James Harden) has made superstar status. He is worthy of the max contract he received. He can do a little bit of everything.”
On the game:
“We just know when one of the guys is out. You don’t need to talk about it. You just go out and do it. We understand we have to pick up the load, and everyone else has to as well.”
“Tonight they (Houston Rockets) went under a lot of pick-and-rolls and dared me to shoot. I can shoot the ball. I was able to get into the paint. I shot 10 free throws. That helped as well. I can do a little bit of everything. However the game plays out I am ready for it.”
On his progression over his career:
“I’ve always been intelligent and had a high basketball IQ. It is just that my game has improved. I have worked on my game every summer, and have implemented what I do in the summertime.”
“I am more efficient. When you are younger you take bad shots. You learn from those moments.”
On getting a win in a close game down the stretch:
“It was big for our team to be able to step up and get stops.”
On the game:
“This team (Houston Rockets) can score the ball and they are one of the toughest teams to guard. To win this game, you have to get stops, key stops. I thought we were able to do that.”
On the Houston Rockets:
“They play very free and they have very good players that can shoot the ball and put the ball on the floor.”
On Chris Bosh being out and how they make up the difference:
“You just have to be more aggressive. I take it upon myself to be more aggressive and LeBron (James) as well. Most of the plays were run with the ball in our hand so we have more opportunities. There is no doubt we have to step up our attack more so than anything so we can get other guys shots and also get our shots as well. We have been able to do that when he has missed a few games.”