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Harden scores 40 in Rockets’ victory

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PHOENIX — Houston Rockets guard James Harden beat Phoenix with a jumper at the buzzer 18 days ago at US Airways Center. This time, he beat the Suns every way possible.

Shaking off a third-quarter elbow stinger, Harden carried the Rockets home with 20 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter to go with 12 rebounds and nine assists. Houston blew an 18-point first-quarter lead, fell behind by eight in the third quarter and still rallied to beat the Suns 127-118 on Tuesday.

Harden, who had 33 points, including the winning shot, in a 113-111 win at Phoenix on Jan. 23, shot 13 for 23 from the field Tuesday and hit the 40-point mark for the sixth time this season — most in the league. He notched his 11th double-double and came within one assist of his second triple-double.

He’s the first player to collect at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a game this season.

“Credit to my teammates, they do a great job of setting screens and getting me open,” said Harden, who will return to the desert next week to have his No. 13 jersey retired at nearby Arizona State University. “They got a lot of points just getting the ball out quick. Once we got our defense set and got the ball rolling, it was all right.”

Harden matched a season high with 45 points in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday and joined Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City as the only players with back-to-back 40-point games this season.

“James is a playing at a level that most guys can’t get to,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “He’s been at that level all year long. I’m happy for him, and he’s improving all the time. We don’t have our record (36-16) if James isn’t playing like this.”

Forward Josh Smith added 20 points and six rebounds for the Rockets, who won for the seventh time in nine games and beat the Suns for the fifth consecutive time. Guard Corey Brewer had nine of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, including two put-backs in a quarter when the Rockets only missed five shots.

“Those offensive rebounds by Brewer are mistakes that kill us,” said Phoenix guard Eric Bledsoe, who led the Suns with 32 points. “Harden made some tough plays — he’s in the run for MVP and he should be up there. But the shots he did miss they still got the offensive rebound and we turned the ball over at the end.”

Guard Goran Dragic added 20 points for the Suns, who enter the All-Star break in a 3-7 slump. Phoenix allowed a combined 80 points in the first (41) and fourth (39) quarters.

“It’s tough because Harden does such a great job of drawing defenders to him and then he throws the pass right there,” Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said. “It seemed like they made every 3-pointer in the fourth quarter and he creates those.

“We just don’t have a James Harden to take over the game.”

But the Suns had their chance. They spotted Houston a 41-23 lead after one quarter — the highest scoring quarter of the season for the Rockets — but cut the lead in half by intermission and opened the third quarter with a 20-3 run. Bledsoe capped a run of 16 straight Phoenix points to turn an eight-point deficit into an eight-point lead at 81-73 on a Bledsoe 19-foot jumper with 5:38 left. Bledsoe had 10 points in the quarter.

Things looked even worse for Houston when Harden got tangled with Phoenix forward P.J. Tucker on a drive to the basket a minute later and came down hard on his left elbow.

“All my weight went on my elbow and it went numb right away,” said Harden, who still wore a protective sleeve on the elbow after the game. “I had some pain but I got the feeling back right away.”

The Houston bench began the comeback before Harden returned. Smith, guard Patrick Beverly and forward Kostas Papanikolaou all hit 3-pointers, and the Rockets pulled within a point after three.

Harden opened the fourth with a four-point play 14 seconds into the period to give the Rockets the lead for good.

“He’s a guy that the defense has to concentrate so much on, all you have to do is get to the right spots and he’ll find you,” Smith said of Harden. “He’s a great player for us. He is the head of our snake and we have to be able to follow his lead.”

NOTES: Put down Houston’s Kevin McHale as one Western Conference coach who is not 100 percent in favor or reseeding the playoffs by record, regardless of conference. “You hate to see teams that have a real good record not make the playoffs,” he said. “But even though travel is better now, if you end up with a Portland-Miami first round, you have an awful lot of traveling.” … The Suns have lost four times on a buzzer-beating shot in the past 33 games, including an 85-83 defeat at Sacramento on Sunday. … Starting centers Dwight Howard (knee) of Houston and Alex Len (ankle) of Phoenix sat out. … The Suns have four players averaging at least 15 points per game: G Eric Bledsoe (16.9), G Goran Dragic (16.1), G Isaiah Thomas (15.3) and F Markieff Morris (15.1). The last team to accomplish that feat was the 2010-11 Golden State Warriors (Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, David Lee and Dorell Wright).

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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