James Harden carries Rockets past injuries, shaky defense
MIAMI - No matter what happens around him, whatever struggles the Rockets defense goes through or guards that leave the floor to rush to the training room, James Harden apparently can still score like crazy.
He had to for the Rockets to beat the Miami Heat 144-133 on Friday. The question they bring to the final days before facing the Bucks in Thursday's season opener is whether he will still have to when the games count.
If the goal for the Rockets' final preseason game was to have their roster and defense healthy heading into the final days of preparation, neither went as they wanted. How much of a concern that will be is unclear.
Guard Russell Westbrook's best game of the preseason ended when he left the court with what the Rockets called a "sore hand" but Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said was a repeat of the dislocated finger that has bothered him since Tokyo.
Guard Austin Rivers left the court in clear pain in the first half and was ruled out with a sore neck.
D'Antoni said both told him they were "all right." But if there are any lingering problems, the Rockets could quickly get shorthanded at the position. Guard Gerald Green was scheduled to see another specialist to examine his broken foot with the Rockets told there is a chance he could return this season, depending on what doctors determine in his surgery.
There is enough depth with Eric Gordon back with the second unit and Ben McLemore having an encouraging preseason. But any further injury issues would cut deep into that depth.
Neither were concerned.
"I'm good," Westbrook said with his right pinky wrapped after a second consecutive game. "That's how it is."
Until then, Westbrook had his best game with the Rockets, finishing with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting in his 26 minutes.
"Been good, been good," Westbrook said when asked if he is ready for the season. "I want to be feeling great in April. When April comes, I'll be feeling my best. I ain't worried about the start of the season. What's the start of the season going to mean? You don't win championships in game one."
After last season's poor start, the Rockets have spoken often about being ready year. They should be close to full strength.
Rivers said he was initially much more concerned about an injury, having had neck issues last season with the Washington Wizards.
"My neck just kind of clamped up," Rivers said. "I had some neck issues a while back, so I didn't know if I pulled it or not. But nothing serious. I'm good. I pulled my neck (last season) and was out most of the preseason. When it happened tonight, I thought it was the same thing, but it wasn't. I'm thankful. I have to start taking care of it, get more body work and tissue work. I'm fine. I'll be ready Thursday."
The defense remained a work in progress. Though the Rockets played with more energy and determination than in their heavy-legged loss to the Spurs, they still needed Harden to take over even with Heat star Jimmy Butler sitting out the second half of a back-to-back and Goran Dragic playing only 16 outstanding first-half minutes.
Harden not only escaped a sluggish start, he got strong as he rolled through 35 minutes. He scored 18 third-quarter points, making six of his nine shots and driving the Rockets to a 21-point lead. When the Heat cut that lead to five, he returned to the floor and rolled through five more minutes to put the game away.
When he was done, Harden had 44 points with five steals, five rebounds and seven assists. The Rockets outscored the Heat by 25 points when he was on the floor.
"That's just the way he's wired," D'Antoni said of Harden attacking the game as if it mattered. "I couldn't take him out in the fourth quarter if I wanted to. He just loves to play. He would play 48 minutes if he could."
Harden played enough in the preseason, averaging 28.8 minutes, to feel regular-season ready. He averaged 31.2 points and nine assists in the preseason, scoring 40 and 39 points in the two games since returning from Tokyo.
"That's what it's about," Harden said. "Whether it's my conditioning, whether it's team chemistry. Tonight we played well for four quarters."
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