By John Denton Jan. 30, 2018
HOUSTON – The Orlando Magic did everything offensively needed to win on Tuesday night, sharing and shooting the ball well from 3-point range and pushing the Houston Rockets to the brink with their stellar effort.
Still, one of the Magic’s best team efforts in weeks wasn’t enough to overcome the one-man wrecking crew that is superstar guard James Harden, who cemented his status as the NBA’s leader in the race for the MVP with a record-setting effort for the ages.
Harden became the first player in league history to score 60 points in a triple-double effort – he also handed out 11 assists and grabbed 10 rebounds – to single-handedly lift Houston past a shell-shocked Magic squad 114-107 at Toyota Center.
The previous NBA high for points scored in a triple-double? That came last March when Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook poured in 57 points – also against the Magic.
Harden topped his own career high (56) and blew past Houston’s franchise record for points in a game (57), which was set in 1978 by Calvin Murphy. Murphy was on hand Tuesday, as was Rockets’ legend Hakeem Olajuwon, and they likely were by the manner in which Harden broke the hearts of the Magic (14-35). His 60 points tied for the second-most points ever scored against Orlando behind Michael Jordan’s 64 in 1993 and equaling Allen Iverson’s 60 in 2005.
``I’ve played with some of the best guys in the world and tonight I can’t lie to you – this was a good performance,’’ said Magic veteran center Marreese Speights, who saw his 17-point, four-3-pointer effort wiped out by Harden’s effort. ``You wonder how he was still hitting all of these crazy shots, but it was his night.’’
Harden scored 18 points in the fourth quarter – including seven straight at one point on buzzer-beating, back-breaking shots – to give the Rockets (36-13) enough cushion to outlast the Magic.
``He’s a superstar and that’s what this league is all about,’’ said Magic point guard D.J. Augustin, who had 13 points and three 3-pointers off the bench. ``This league is filled with superstars and we just couldn’t contain him.’’
Orlando was without its top defender, forward Aaron Gordon, because of a hip injury and Harden was in attack mode all night long. For the game, he made 19 of 30 shots, five of 14 3-pointers and 17 of 18 free throws. He had 16 points in the first quarter, 24 by halftime and 32 points heading into the fourth period and 18 over the final 12 minutes. With Houston missing Chris Paul (groin strain), Trevor Ariza (hamstring strain) and Eric Gordon (lower back tightness), Harden incredibly played 46 minutes and 26 seconds, resting only briefly in the second quarter.
``It was a heck of a performance by him and when you have your second, third and fourth options out, the likely MVP of this season did what he had to do to get a win,’’ marveled Magic coach Frank Vogel. ``We tried to make him a passer as much as possible and keep him off the free throw line as much as possible, but we didn’t do a good enough job there. Credit him for a spectacular performance.’’
Houston needed every Harden contribution because of how well the Magic played from start to finish. The Magic drilled 15 3-pointers, shot 50.6 percent from the floor and placed six players in double figures.
Still, it wasn’t enough on a night when Harden was at his record-setting best. Houston got 12 points from center Clint Capela, 11 from reserve forward Gerald Green and 10 from Ryan Anderson. Had Harden been slowed just a bit more, Orlando undoubtedly would have escaped with one of its finest wins of the season. Instead, the Magic had to try and stomach more heartache.
``I’ve been in the league for 10 years, so I’ve seen some guys go off like that, but the way that he did it – still getting other guys involved and still running the team – it was amazing,’’ Augustin gushed. ``It’s tough because I felt like we played well, played together, shot the ball well and played good defense, but a superstar like that is hard to guard and he makes everybody around him better. That’s how they got the win.’’
The Magic and Rockets were tied at 107 inside the final two minutes when Harden went to work on Orlando’s defense. After rebounding his own missed 3-pointer, he drilled a step-back jumper on Evan Fournier with 1:51 to play. Then, following a Jonathon Simmons’ turnover, Harden connected on a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired and as he was fouled by Mario Hezonja. The free throw gave him 60 points and Houston’s all-time scoring mark.
“It’s a good feeling I guess, I'm just trying to go out there and make an impact every single night on the game," Harden said about his historic triple-double. "However I can, whether it’s scoring, rebounding, assists, steals. You know, whatever it is and tonight I guess I was just doing everything.”
Hezonja and Speights each scored 17 points, while Shelvin Mack and Simmons each chipped in 15. Augustin added 13 points, while Fournier scored 12. Speights drilled four 3-pointers, while Hezonja and Augustin each connected on three 3-pointers.
Houston had a huge advantage at the free throw line, making 23 of 28 attempts there. Harden (17 of 18 from the stripe) shot nearly twice as many free throws as the Magic (eight of 10).
Said Augustin: ``It felt like James Harden was getting to the line every time, but that’s how he plays. We knew that coming in and we needed to guard him without fouling and we didn’t do a good enough job of that.’’
Orlando has played much better basketball of late, beating Boston and Minnesota and pushing playoff-bound foes Cleveland, Washington and Indiana to the brink in narrow losses. It’s arguably the Magic’s best stretch of basketball since they opened the season 6-2 back in late October and early November.
Orlando certainly could have used Gordon, who strained his left hip flexor muscle late in Saturday’s loss in Indiana. Gordon, Orlando’s leading scorer on the season at 18.4 points per game, said he was bumped by a foe as he was planting his foot, causing his hip to twist and ``pull.’’
Gordon said on Tuesday morning that it pained him greatly to miss a game against an elite player like Harden, who he could have matched up on all throughout the game. Throughout his four seasons with the Magic, Gordon has regularly guarded the opposing team’s best scorer and undoubtedly that would have meant an assignment on Tuesday against Harden. Instead, Gordon had to watch Harden author one of the great performances in NBA history.
``Especially playing Houston because these are the types of games that I want to be in – against playoff teams and championship-caliber teams,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s too bad, it’s the way the game works, I’ll be patient and I’ll be back soon, though.’’
Orlando will be back in action on Wednesday night when it faces the Los Angeles Lakers at the Amway Center. It is the first meeting between the two teams this season. The Magic have beaten the Lakers each of the past four seasons at the Amway Center.
Tuesday’s game served as something of a homecoming for three of Orlando’s players. Simmons and forward Wes Iwundu hail from Houston and had large groups of family and friends in the crowd at the Toyota Center. Augustin is a native of New Orleans, but he and his family have considered Houston to be home since they left New Orleans while fleeing Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Harden had 39 points through three quarters – more than any Houston player had ever scored against Orlando – but the Rockets led just 90-88 because of the Magic’s red-hot shooting from outside. The Magic drilled five 3-pointers in the third period – three of them coming from Hezonja – to frustrate Houston’s defense. Hezonja, who started in place of the injured Gordon, came alive in the third and scored 11 points. Simmons did most of his damage inside the 3-point stripe, making five of eight shots just after halftime for 11 third-quarter points.
``It’s very disappointing because we’re moving in the right direction, but not winning,’’ Mack said. ``It sounds like we’re beating the same drum every night. We’re giving ourselves the chance to win every night, but we’re just not getting it done. We’ve just got to figure out these last two minutes to win these games.’’
Orlando never got a handle on slowing down Harden in the first half, but it didn’t matter because the Magic never slowed down draining shots from the perimeter. Orlando buried eight of 15 3-pointers in the first 24 minutes and led the Rockets 55-54 at intermission.
Harden had 24 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 22 minutes of action in the opening half, but the Rockets were actually a negative on the scoreboard (minus-one) with the top MVP candidate on the floor. All eight of his first-half field goals came at the rim, while each of his seven misses were from 3-point range.
In the end, the Magic played well offensively, but they never could slow Harden down well enough to get the victory. As much as Vogel admired Harden’s effort, he hated seeing the final result because it meant Orlando wouldn’t get the payoff for a game well played.
``There’s been some (big individual performances) throughout my career, but that was pretty special,’’ Vogel said. ``Our guys competed and I hate to keep saying this, but I’m proud of the togetherness and energy that our group is playing with and the belief that our group is playing with. You’ve got the (expected) MVP playing 46 minutes and putting his team on his back and we still have a chance to win late. I’m proud of our performance and effort and we’ll put this one behind us and try to get the Lakers tomorrow.’’
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