HOUSTON – On Friday morning, All-Star guard James Harden walked off the Toyota Center court after shootaround and suggested he might not play later because of a right foot that has throbbed for a week.
On Friday night, he delivered a 37-point, 8-assist, 7-rebound performance that brought the Rockets back from 20 points behind to beat the Timberwolves 108-100.
Good thing that sore right foot didn’t hurt any more than it did, huh?
“Didn’t look like it to me,” said Luke Ridnour, the Wolves’ undersized shooting guard asked to defend the guy with that beard a good bit of the night. “He looked good to me.”
His team trailing by 20 points just seconds into the third quarter, Harden played the entire second half and energized a Rockets team that’s aimed toward one of the West’s final playoff spots by scoring 25 of those 37 points after halftime.
He changed the pace of a game nearly all by himself, slowing down the Wolves’ efficient first-half offense by getting to the free-throw line 18 times, 13 of those attempts in a second half when he played the parts of both scorer and playmaker with equal aplomb.
“One play, we had three guys on him and he kicked it out,” said Wolves forward Derrick Williams, who played against Harden in Los Angeles since Williams was a ninth-grader. “He’s tough. When you’re trying to double-team James and you’re leaving guys open, it’s hard. It’s hard on all of us.”
Harden scored 15 points in the third quarter to get the Rockets back in sight and when the Wolves defense turned its attention to him in the fourth quarter, Rockets reserve forward Greg Smith found space in the seams, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the final quarter.
“We fluctuate a bit,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said simply about a team that trailed 59-39 and didn’t lead all night until Jeremy Lin’s three-pointer with 5:30 left sent the Rockets roaring away on a decisive 16-6 run. “James threw us on his back for awhile.”
The two teams wrapped up a season series Friday that finished very much the same as it started, with the Rockets rallying from 14 behind when Harden scored 17 fourth-quarter points in an 87-84 victory at Target Center the day after Christmas.
Harden credited the Rockets’ intensified second-half defense for the turnabout.
Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio blamed himself for a second half in which the team’s ball movement stuck after it had flowed so efficiently for the game’s first 24 minutes.
He also suggested a collective lack of will and an abundance of fatigue on a night when the Rockets played more guys (10) than the Wolves had healthy (9).
“Maybe we were running out of gas,” Rubio said. “These kinds of games you can see who wants to win and who doesn’t want it. I know they’re fighting for a playoff spot and our chances are basically over, but we can’t play like that. We have to want to win every game. In the fourth quarter, it seemed like we didn’t want to win and that can’t happen.”
Afterward, Wolves coach Rick Adelman looked like a man — just seven victories away from 1,000 NBA career victories — whose team had lost for the 26th time in its last 32 games.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said, answering one question about the game. “Write what you want. They obviously played better in the second half, and we didn’t.”