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).
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