James Harden has 25 to lead Rockets over Magic 128-104

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HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Rockets weren’t thrilled that they let a huge lead dwindle to less than 10 points in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night.

They were, however, happy with how they responded once that happened.

James Harden had 25 points and 13 assists as the Rockets built a big lead early and held off a late rally to get a 128-104 win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night.

The Rockets had led by as many as 23 before the Magic begin chipping away at the lead. Serge Ibaka made a turnaround jump shot midway through the fourth quarter to cut Houston’s lead to nine points. Harden grabbed a bad pass from Evan Fournier not long after that and dished to Eric Gordon, who finished with a 3-pointer. Trevor Ariza added a 3-pointer for Houston to extend the lead to 112-97 with about four minutes remaining to put the game away.

“Teams are going to make runs,” Ariza said. “It’s all about how you respond to the runs when you make them. Once they made their run we were able to come back and get stops most importantly.”

Patrick Beverley made seven points after that to help extend the lead to 120-99 with less than two minutes left and send Houston’s starters to the bench.

It is Houston’s second straight win and the 10th loss in 13 games for the Magic.

“We had a couple of opportunities, we had shots, and cut the deficit,” Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “But then a couple of turnovers at bad times and they were able to capitalize on it.”

Harden’s scoring slowed down a bit on Tuesday after he scored 41 and 42 points in his last two games. But his 13 assists ended a streak of four straight games where he had fewer than 10, which was a season-long drought.

Ibaka had 28 points for the Magic and Evan Fournier added 21.

“We know they’re a good team and we know they can shoot the ball, but we also know we have to play better defense,” Ibaka said.

Houston led by 12 early in the third quarter when Beverley and Ariza made consecutive 3-pointers to spark an 11-4 run that extended the lead to 81-62 with about seven minutes left in the quarter.

The Magic missed five shots in that span to help Houston pad its advantage.

The Rockets had pushed the lead to 20 points not long after that when the Magic finally got something going, and used a 16-5 spurt to get within 93-84 late in the third quarter. Gordon made one of two free throws after that to leave the Rockets up 94-84 entering the fourth quarter.

Fournier made six points to help Orlando cut the lead in that span, including four straight free throws late in that time.

The Rockets led 70-54 at halftime.


Magic: Nikola Vucevic had 14 points and a season-high 19 rebounds. … The Magic made just six of 25 3-pointers. … D.J. Augustin added 11 points.

Rockets: Clint Capela had 17 points to extend his streak of games with at least 10 points to a career-high eight straight games. … Nene had 13 points for his fourth double-digit game in the last five. … Beverley had seven assists, to give him at least five in six of the last seven games.


The Rockets were energized after getting a short break with three days between their last game and Tuesday’s contest. Now they’re focused on building on what they did against the Magic in their last three games before the All-Star break.

“These next (three) games before the All-Star break are going to be extremely important for us, especially on the defensive end, to kind of build some momentum,” Harden said. “We have to come out with that intensity, and that mind set, and we’ll be all right.”


Hakeem Olajuwon was honored on Tuesday night as part of the team’s 50th anniversary celebration. The Hall of Famer, who helped the Rockets to back-to-back titles in 1994-95, is Muslim and was born in Nigeria, but has since become a naturalized U.S. citizen. He addressed new President Donald Trump’s travel ban before the game.

“I was kind of surprised,” he said. “I was thinking maybe a lot of people say things just to get elected and wouldn’t actually do it … I think in the first quarter you would make a mistake and have to adjust. I think this was a mistake that the president made.”

He hopes Trump will change course.

“You can adjust in the second half to make it work by pull(ing) everybody together,” he said. “This is an opportunity to pull everybody together instead of separating.”


Magic: Host Philadelphia on Thursday.

Rockets: Travel to Charlotte Thursday.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.