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Harden leads Rockets past Kings

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Guard James Harden caught the basketball in the open court, spotted a lane and headed to the basket. Halfway there, he found the lane shut off, so he kept his dribble, peeled right and found an open spot behind the 3-point arc.

He let fly, and the basketball dropped softly through the net.

It was only the first quarter Tuesday, but already Harden and the Rockets were well en route to rollicking night. Harden scored 22 of his season-high 43 points in the opening quarter, and the Rockets ripped the Sacramento Kings 129-103 at Sleep Train Arena.

“Just me playing my game,” Harden said of a night that saw him make 9 of his first 12 shots and dish out eight assists while making a mockery of the Kings’ defense. “Playing my game at a high level.”

He’s not the only one. Houston (39-18) built a 31-point lead in the game’s first 14 minutes and never were threatened. Houston scored 58 points in the paint, and scored 27 points on its fastbreak.

Center Dwight Howard added 20 points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes, and Houston (39-18) won for the ninth time in 10 games. Forward Terrence Jones added 11 points and forward Chandler Parsons had 10 points and eight rebounds, as four of the Rockets’ five starters scored in double-digits.

But the story was Harden, who finished 11-for-20. Houston outscored the Kings 18-2 on the break in the game’s first 12 minutes, and Harden was the one directing the action. He finished off some breaks by scoring himself and finished others by setting up dunks for teammates. Houston powered down five of them while taking a 50-19 by the 9:54 mark of the second quarter, and the Kings were never closer than 18 points the rest of the way.

“Get stops and go. Get stops and go,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “That’s how we play our best basketball.”

Forward Rudy Gay scored 25 points to pace the Kings (20-37), who were trying to match a season-high three-game winning streak. Center DeMarcus Cousins finished with 16 points and six rebounds for Sacramento, and guard Isaiah Thomas finished with 12. The three had combined to score 92 points in a Sacramento win at Denver on Sunday.

Cousins was ejected after picking up two technical fouls in the second quarter, the second with 8:21 to go and Sacramento trailing 83-58. Cousins has been issued an NBA-high 15 technical fouls this season, and is one shy of receiving a one-game suspension. He led the NBA last season, too, collecting 17.

“It’s disappointing,” Kings coach Michael Malone said. “To be honest, I’m more disappointed in how we played than in any individual. Do I condone his actions? Not at all. Does he have to handle himself better? Sure he does. But for us to come out and play that way that we did in the first quarter was unacceptable.”

Harden was a one-man accelerator from the outset, getting out in the open floor often in the opening period and outscoring the Kings by himself as Houston raced to a 42-17 advantage. It was the Rockets’ highest-scoring quarter of the season.

“We wanted to get stops and get into transition,” Harden said. “We were able to establish the tempo we wanted.”

The Rockets, who rank third in the NBA in scoring at just more than 106 per contest, reached the century mark before the end of the third quarter and won for the 17th straight time when scoring at least 100 points. Houston led 69-51 at halftime, its third-highest scoring first half of the campaign, and improved improved to 18-3 this season, when it puts up at least 60 in the opening half.

“For us to come out here after two solid wins, having played very good defense, not ready to play — I can’t put my finger on it,” Malone said. “I don’t know why we did that. I know it’s not acceptable.”

Harden entered the final quarter needing just a 3-pointer to match his career-high of 46 set against Oklahoma City on Feb. 20, 2013. But with a showdown looming with the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, McHale kept his team’s leading scorer on ice.

“I wanted it,” Harden said of the career-high. “But coach did the right thing. We had a big lead, and a big game (Wednesday).”

Reggie Evans, acquired from the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 19 for guard Marcus Thornton, made his home debut for Sacramento and scored eight points. Rookie guard Ray McCallum played a season-high 24 minutes and matched his career-bests with six points and four rebounds.

NOTES: Kings G Jimmer Fredette was not in uniform amid multiple reports that the team was close to buying him out of his contract and will waive him by the end of the week. GM Pete D’Alessandro told reporters that Fredette no longer is in the team’s plans. Fredette, a fan favorite in Sacramento, is a free agent at the end of the season. He turned 25 on Tuesday. He has shot 49.3 percent from 3-point range this season, the best in the NBA among shooters with at least 70 attempts. … Rockets C Dwight Howard averaged 22.9 points and 12.8 rebounds in his previous 10 games, shooting 59.7 percent from the field. … The 92 combined points by C DeMarcus Cousins, F Rudy Gay and G Isaiah Thomas in Sunday’s 109-95 win at Denver was the most in a game by any Kings threesome in the 29 seasons the team has been in Sacramento. … Rockets F James Harden played despite a hyperextended right elbow.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair

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If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.

Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.

Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.

“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The 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.”

Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.

Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?

“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”

The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.

“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”

Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.

“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”

Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.

Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.

“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”

The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.

Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.

“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.

Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.

The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.

Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.

NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.

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Spurs’ Ginobili sprains ankle

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SAN ANTONIO — Guard Manu Ginobili was helped off the floor late in the third quarter of the San Antonio Spurs’ game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday due to a sprained right ankle.

Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points. He was immediately was led to the locker room, and he did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court. He did not return to the game.

In 19 minutes during the Spurs’ 123-97 win over the Timberwolves, Ginobili scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday and leading him to play limited minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.

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NBA notebook: Clippers’ Griffin cleared to return

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Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, out the last 15 games with an elbow injury, was cleared to return Sunday against the Houston Rockets.

Griffin had surgery five weeks ago to remove a staph infection in his right elbow.

“He said, ‘I’m ready,'” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Sunday’s game. “Yesterday the trainers called me and said, ‘If he can go, he can go. He’s been cleared.'”

Rivers said timing likely will be an adjustment for Griffin.

“Timing is timing,” Rivers said. “You lose it when you don’t play in an NBA game. Sometimes you come back and you play great the first game and then you lose your timing. Sometimes it doesn’t. As far as the way we play, it won’t be hard for him at all.”

In 51 games this season, Griffin is averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists.

–Spurs guard Manu Ginobili had to be helped off the floor late in the third quarter against Minnesota on Sunday. Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points.

He was helped off the floor and immediately was led to the locker room. He did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court.

Up to that point, Ginobili had scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against Toronto and play limited minutes against Cleveland on March 12.

–Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sent emails to three fans who were disappointed that he rested several prominent players, including All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in Friday’s loss to the Nuggets in Denver.

“There’s two really good sides to the story,” Kerr said, according to the Associated Press report. “Nobody’s wrong here. … I can’t argue with them.”

Kerr received an email from a family that drove from South Dakota to Denver to see Curry, Thompson and the entertaining Warriors play. But Curry, Thompson, center Andrew Bogut and reserve guard Andre Iguodala did not play so they could be rested, and the Warriors lost 114-103.

“I heard from some fans. I received a few emails, stories about driving in from a long distance off and spending a lot of money on tickets,” Kerr said. “I have great sympathy for those people. I really do. It’s a tricky one. It’s something that I think Adam Silver is trying to address through the scheduling shuffling that he’s talking about.

–The Dallas Mavericks recalled center/forward Dwight Powell from the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League on Sunday.

The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Powell played in one game during his most recent assignment to the D-League and finished with 28 points, five rebounds and two assists to lead the Legends in a 115-89 win over the Austin Spurs on Saturday night.

Powell has appeared in 19 games for the Mavericks this season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.0 minutes per game.

–The Atlanta Hawks signed forward Austin Daye to a 10-day contract Sunday.

Daye appeared in 26 games (four starts) earlier this season with the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.3 minutes.

In 10 games this season with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League, Daye has averaged 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 28.5 minutes.

–The Miami Heat recalled guard Zoran Dragic from the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League on Sunday.

Zoran appeared in four games (one start) and averaged 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.50 steals, helping the Skyforce to a 3-1 record over that span.

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