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Harden carries Rockets pastTrail Blazers

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HOUSTON — Rockets guard James Harden already had dazzled the crowd at Toyota Center as he dribbled out the final seconds of the first half and set the stage for one last play that left the throng delirious. When he converted at the buzzer, the roar of approval was deafening.

Harden produced a whirling dervish performance and carried the Houston Rockets to a 110-95 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night, a victory that snapped a modest two-game home skid.

Harden scored 44 points and added seven assists and five steals as the Rockets (20-7) blitzed the red-hot and short-handed Trail Blazers (22-7). He tallied 31 points by the intermission, capping his fabulous first half with a driving layup that punctuated his aggressive approach.

“When they made a mistake, he just took a lane and went downhill,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of Harden. “He got to the line 13 times but really got in their paint a ton. He had another night where he had seven assists on top of his 44 points. Needless to say he played wonderfully.”

Rockets center Dwight Howard added a double-double (16 points, 13 rebounds) while swingman Corey Brewer made his Houston debut a memorable one, sparking a decisive second-quarter run en route to 12 points and five steals in 22 frenetic minutes off the bench. Brewer was acquired via trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 19.

Houston recorded 20 paint points and 10 in transition during its 36-point second quarter, converting seven Portland turnovers into 12 points. Harden and Brewer combined for 19 points and five steals in that period, turning defense into offense to knock Portland on its heels.

“It just comes with the fact of being aggressive,” Harden said. “My teammates did a great job of playing fast. It was basically a scoring fest in the first quarter and the beginning of the second. Our defense tightened up and we got some stops and made it even better.”

The Trail Blazers had their five-game winning streak snapped. Portland guard Damian Lillard scored a team-high 18 points as the Trail Blazers struggled to keep pace without All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge (illness) and center Robin Lopez (right hand fracture).

“James Harden played terrifically,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “Defensively we didn’t give much resistance in the first half and they took advantage of that. Offensively we turned the ball over too much and really weren’t able to mount any legitimate comeback.”

With Portland clinging to a 25-21 lead, Harden scored 13 points over the final 2:06 of the first quarter, igniting that run with the first of his two first-half three-point plays. Portland withstood that early salvo and trailed by just four points entering the second before the Rockets began to pull away with a 14-3 run that extended their advantage to 57-45.

Following a putback by Portland center Chris Kaman, the Rockets added a 6-0 run that included the second Harden three-point play before ending the half with a Brewer 3 and the Harden buzzer beater. Harden added 11 points in the third to help Houston maintain its 20-point lead entering the fourth period. He missed his final shot attempt, a trey that would have allowed him to eclipse his career high of 46 points.

“We did start out well but then defensively we had trouble stopping James,” Trail Blazers reserve guard Steve Blake said. “He went to work and got a lot of and-1s and was getting to the basket and creating for his teammates.”

NOTES: With his 3-pointer in the third quarter, Rockets G Jason Terry became the third player in NBA history with 2,000 career 3s, joining Ray Allen (2,973) and Reggie Miller (2,560). … Trail Blazers F LaMarcus Aldridge (illness) missed a game for the second time this season. He is day-to-day. Portland started its seventh different lineup, more than all of last season, when four of its five starters started all 82 games. … Aldridge was selected the Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging 26.3 points and 14.3 rebounds while the Trail Blazers completed a 4-0 week. … Houston G/F Corey Brewer and G Alexey Shved made their Rockets debuts following their acquisition last Friday.