ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Portland Trail Blazers’ next task is formidable: slow down the Houston Rockets and James Harden.
The Rockets come to Portland for a Saturday night meeting with the Trail Blazers having won six in a row and 11 of their last 12 outings, including a 135-134 overtime thriller at Golden State on Wednesday in which Houston rallied from a 20-point deficit in the third quarter.
Harden, who leads the NBA in scoring at 33.6 points per game, has been on the greatest roll of his career. He collected 44 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds against the Warriors and sank an off-balance 3-point shot from 30 feet with one second left in overtime for the game-winner.
“They’re the hottest team in the league, and James is playing at an all-time historic level,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “It’s a challenge we’re going to have to accept.”
Harden is riding a streak of five consecutive 40-point games, matching a feat accomplished only by Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant in the past 50 years.
“He’s unique,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said after the loss to the Rockets. “Certain players change the game. Allen Iverson changed the game, changed the way players dribble. Harden is one of those guys. He has changed the way people draw fouls and he has gotten really good at it. He’s the best in the league at it.
“It takes somebody really unique and special to literally change the way the whole league is playing and the way they look at the game, and James has done that with his ability to draw contact and get to the line. If you think you can reach in there and get the ball from him, you are crazy. You are not going to do it. You are just going to foul him.”
Harden, named Friday as Western Conference Player of the Month for December, is on pace to lead the NBA in both free throws made and attempted for a fifth consecutive season. He is averaging 9.4 free throws made on 11.1 attempts — both career highs.
“You have to be so disciplined (to defend him), it’s hard,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Your natural instincts are to do the things that he takes advantage of. If you aren’t disciplined, he takes advantage of it. He has a knack. I don’t know how he does it. I have no clue. But they’re fouls. I know a lot of people don’t like it … but as he says, then quit fouling, because they’re fouls.”
The Rockets have won eight of their past 10 meetings with the Trail Blazers, splitting the first two this season, both in Houston, heading into the final matchup. Houston will be without point guard Chris Paul, who will miss his seventh game in a row due to a hamstring injury.
“Even without Chris, they’re capable of beating anybody,” Portland guard CJ McCollum said. “They shoot a lot of 3-pointers, a lot of one-on-one and iso situations. Trying to keep those guys off the free-throw line will be our biggest challenge. We have to stay away from fouling and eliminate their easy shots.”
The Blazers will be playing the second of back-to-back games after a 111-109 home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lillard scored a team-high 23 points on Friday as Portland slipped to 4-4 over the past eight games.
“Can’t lose two in a row at home,” McCollum said. “We have to play better.”