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Rockets Keep Rocking In Cleveland

Harden brilliant again as Houston bounces Cavs for third straight win

HOUSTON - “Let’s put them away from the start.”

That was the message from Chandler Parsons to his teammates as the Rockets huddled together prior to the start of their Saturday night showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavs came into the contest a beaten, battered and bruised unit and Houston’s players knew it. They also realized this was not the time to show mercy. So Parsons and company promptly went about the business of methodically subjecting the Cavs to the same sort of surgical treatment they had unleashed upon Minnesota and Utah earlier this week.

The Rockets were relentless right from the start, ripping off a 17-4 run in the opening minutes. Parsons backed up his words by leading the offensive attack early before cruising to his standard “steady Eddie” stat line of 16 points, six assists, four boards and a pair of blocks. By the end of the third quarter, Houston had already eclipsed the 100-point plateau and seized a 22-point advantage. And though the Rockets languished through a lackluster final frame, they still left Cleveland with a 118-111 victory, capping a week that saw the club bounce back from its recent three-game losing streak in the best way possible.

Indeed, after emerging from a brutal seven-game stretch which pitted Houston against one top team after another, it was fascinating to see the Rockets shift into taking-care-of-business mode as they swatted aside the likes of Utah, Minnesota and Cleveland with relative ease – especially since they were forced to do so without the services of eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard in all three instances. But Omer Asik has filled in spectacularly, and the Rockets’ ball movement has been better than ever. Those two keys even went hand-in-hand on occasion, as was the case when Asik summoned Bob Feller just before halftime Saturday night, zipping a full-court fastball to Patrick Beverley that allowed the Rockets’ point guard to squeeze in a layup that just beat the buzzer. That play represented the most spectacular of Houston’s 31 assists on the night as the Rockets reached the rarified air signified by that statistical marker for the third consecutive game; the first time Houston has done so since January of 1994 – a season that fans will recall ended on a fairly high note.

Of course, that campaign featured an MVP performance from a rather noteworthy Rockets legend so perhaps it is only appropriate that Houston’s recent play would draw comparisons to its halcyon days during a time when James Harden is delivering the kind of production that attracts attention come ballot time as well. Since the start of February, Harden has been nothing short of fantastic, averaging 27 points and around six assists and four rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and better than 43 percent from the 3-point line. Not coincidentally, the Rockets are 16-5 during that stretch. And Houston’s All-Star two-guard was beyond brilliant once again Saturday night, scorching the Cavs to the tune of 37 points and 11 assists.

But perhaps even better than the sheer enormity of those numbers was the way in which Harden went about compiling them. He started the game by picking Cleveland’s overmatched defense apart, dissecting them with his razor-sharp passes while racking up eight assists in the opening period. And when the Cavs made a run in the third quarter and threatened to make the contest competitive, Harden laid those plans to waste with a spectacular shooting display that culminated with him draining 28-foot bombs as if they were dunks. He tallied 17 points during Houston’s game-defining 34-10 third quarter run; a stretch that put the game so far out of reach that he was able to take a seat on the bench for the rest of the evening. Oh yeah, that’s right – those 37 points and 11 assists? Harden required just 29 minutes and 15 field goal attempts to accrue them.

“Once my teammates get it going, it’s tough to beat us,” he said immediately after the game. “You have the ball moving fast, guys making shots and it’s easy basketball then.”

It’s not “easy,” of course. But therein lies the beauty of the way Harden’s offensive game has continued to evolve. When he is at his best and most dynamic, as he’s been for the better part of two months now, he can pick his spots and seamlessly transition from scorer to facilitator depending upon what his team needs at that specific moment. There’s nothing simple about that. But Harden has made it look effortless. And as a result, this year’s Rockets have never looked better.

“Great players do that,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale after the game. “I’ve seen him do it many different times. That’s what separates him from a lot of players - he’s got the ability to do that.”

QUOTES

HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE

(On closing out the game):  “We didn’t want to have (our starters) come back like that.  We didn’t play very well.  We started doing stuff that we had no business doing.  We had a big enough lead and it was a good win, now off to Charlotte.”

(On Rockets’ ball movement):  “It’s nice to see when we don’t hold it.  When we hold it and try to make specific plays, that’s when we struggle.  When we just make the next play to the open man, that’s when good things happen.

(On James Harden):  “He had it going.  Great players do that.  They get it going.  He got on a roll and I’ve seen him do that many different times.  That’s what separates him from a lot of players - he has the ability to do that.

JAMES HARDEN

(On the game):  “(The Cavaliers) made their run.  They made their run, and then we made our run.  We knew they were going to make a run.  (The Cavaliers) are a good team and they don’t give up.  (Our) guys did a good job of staying with what we do and playing all four quarters.”

(On the Rockets’ ball movement):  “We move the basketball and everybody scores, everybody’s happy and everybody plays defense.  It’s contagious.  If we can get to that level on a night-to-night basis, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

(On his night):  “I let the game come to me.  If the shot is there for me, I take it.  If the pass is there, I make sure I make the right pass every time.  If the drive is there, I take the drive.  It’s just a matter of me using my basketball instincts and going out there and just playing.”

(On getting in a zone):  “(It’s) practice.  It’s me being in the gym all the time.  It gives you the confidence to go out there and shoot those shots.  The more I stay in the gym and practice on my game, the more confidence I have taking those shots.”

CAVS HEAD COACH MIKE BROWN

(On tonight’s game): “It’s tough because that’s two nights in a row that we’ve come out and our first group has just been flat. They’ve been flat defensively, flat offensively. From the beginning, we’re fighting from a hole. Not only are we fighting from a hole but obviously you’re opponent has some confidence, especially offensively. So it’s like an uphill battle that you’re fighting, especially being shorthanded. We have to do a better job at beginning of games. Come out and try to hit first and not be the recipient of being hit. You give those guys credit. Obviously, (James) Harden had a monster game against us. I thought Chandler Parsons was really good too, especially early on.”

(On the team’s bench play): “For us, Delly (Matthew Dellavedova) was great coming off the bench. He’s been really good for us. This is second double-double in a row. Anderson (Varejao) was great coming off the bench. Tyler (Zeller) was great. I thought our bench in the last two games they’ve given us a big spark. They’ve really helped us either A, get back into the game, or B, stay in the game to a certain degree. Give those guys credit but we just have to do a better job of coming out at the beginning of games and playing with some sort of sense of urgency or fight and not be the recipient of whatever a team throws at us. It’s going to be big for us tomorrow in a back-to-back situation at New York.”

DION WAITERS

(On if he can explain the team’s slow starts to recent games): “I’m not sure. We just have to come out with the mindset of playing with the same energy as we did in the last five minutes. Every game we’re shorthanded, so there isn’t a lot of room for mistakes. These last three teams that came in have been playoff teams. These last couple of games for us down the stretch is going to be like playoff basketball. Playoff teams are still fighting for seeding and we’re still fighting. We just have to have a sense of urgency and come out and keep the same energy level.”

(On defending a team that has so many three-point shooters): “It’s hard; we’re out there scrambling, helping one another and they’re moving the ball. That’s what makes it tough. We just have to stay with it. We can’t get down. I feel as though every time teams go on a run, we put our heads down like the game is over. Every time we play with a sense of urgency, that tempo we need to play at for the last five minutes, you look up and you’re only down seven-eight (points) with two minutes left.”

(On treating the last games of the season like playoff games): “You have to. These teams that are coming in here are fighting for seeding and we’re still alive too. It’s not over and I think we should know that. We have to come out here and just play hard; play together and play for one another, especially with us being shorthanded.”

TYLER ZELLER

(On tonight’s loss): “We’re just going to continue to play hard and try to stay in the game. You don’t ever want to give up and I felt that we did a great job of that tonight.”

(On being able to come back late in games): “If you can get into a flow a little bit, maybe it’ll help going into the next game. Hopefully, we just continue to play better and better every game.”