CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford considers Houston guard James Harden to be one of the three best offensive players in the NBA, along with Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Harden showed why on Monday night in the Rockets’ 100-89 victory over the Bobcats.
He erupted for 31 points, including 14 in the third quarter when the Rockets took control of the game, and then set up others for the knockout punch down the stretch.
“I’ll give you Durant and LeBron, but there’s nobody else in the league with the offensive skills he has,” Clifford said.
Harden, who came into the game fifth in the NBA in scoring at 24.8 per game, has now scored more than 30 in three of his last five games.
“It’s a great compliment coming from an opposing coach,” Harden said. “I just try to go out there and do my stuff. I put so much work in, so much extra work in, just trying to be the best I can be.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale also had high praise for Harden, who was 11-of-19 from the field with four 3-pointers and also handed out five assists.
“I’ll tell you what, he just took over at the end of the third quarter,” McHale said. “He’s been fantastic playing the right way, and just efficient, too. He scored 31 on 19 shots tonight. I think he had 38 on 15 or 16 the other night. He’s making the right play. If guys come, he makes the right pass. He’ll drop the ball off to people. Led us in assists tonight, too. So just a nice job overall.”
The Rockets (48-22) claimed their fourth straight win as they welcomed back center Dwight Howard after he had missed the previous three games with a left ankle strain. Howard finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and two steals in 32 minutes, although he battled foul trouble much of the night.
“He’s a great talent and it’s great to have him back,” Harden said. “He didn’t score the ball well tonight but he had 10 rebounds, he did so many other things, holding down (Bobcats center) Al Jefferson. We know how important he is to our team.”
The Rockets led 25-24 after one quarter and 54-50 at halftime. Then Harden went to work in the third, hitting five of six from the field in the quarter with two 3-pointers. Houston eventually led 78-68 after three and pushed the lead up to 13 in the first two minutes of the fourth.
Charlotte got as close as five at 90-85, but Harden hit a 20-footer as the shot clock expired to put Houston up 92-85 with 2:45 left. Forward Chandler Parsons and guard Patrick Beverley hit 3-pointers on Houston’s next two possessions to put the game out of reach.
Besides Harden’s 31, the Rockets got 18 points from forward Terrence Jones, 11 from Parsons and 10 from guard Jeremy Lin.
“This was a game I was really concerned about,” McHale said. “That team has been playing really well. Kemba (Walker) can get it going, Al (Jefferson) can get it going, and they play kind of a grindy style that can give us problems, because sometimes we get slowed down and quit attacking. But we were able to get out on them and run some. It was a good, grind-it-out type win for us.”
The Bobcats (34-37) shot just 37.2 percent from the field, one game after erupting for a season-high 124 points in a win over Portland last Saturday.
Walker led the way with 22 points but was 7-for-19 from the field. Jefferson finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, and guard Gerald Henderson scored 13.
“We didn’t have the same attention to detail that we needed to tonight,” Clifford said. “We didn’t have the mentality that we had the other night, to play against a team like that.”
Notes: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attended the game after spending the day with Bobcats officials. … The Rockets have now won seven in a row in the series. They also won 96-93 in Houston on Oct. 30 in the season-opener for both teams. … The Rockets were closing out a brief two-game road trip after winning at Cleveland 118-111 on Saturday. … The Bobcats will be without C Brendan Haywood (stress fracture left foot) and F Jeffery Taylor (ruptured right Achilles) for the rest of the season. … The Rockets were without G Francisco Garcia (personal reasons) and F Greg Smith (right knee procedure). … The Bobcats were playing the second game of a three-game home stand. They will host Brooklyn on Wednesday. … The Rockets will return home to face Philadelphia on Thursday. They are currently on a 10-game home winning streak.
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