NEW ORLEANS (AP) — James Harden dribbled inside the 3-point line, surveyed the court and saw the Pelicans weren’t going to throw a quick double-team at him to try to force the ball out of his hands with the game on the line.
The Houston star dipped his shoulder and took one quick step toward New Orleans’ Austin Rivers, then stepped back and nailed a 22-foot, tiebreaking jumper with 28 seconds left. The shot capped a 26-point outing that led the Rockets to a third straight victory, 103-100 on Wednesday night.
“I was reading what the other four players were doing and they all stayed home,” Harden said. “It was mano-a-mano.”
That Harden’s heroics were even needed was a bit of a surprise against hobbled, reeling New Orleans, which was without three top players — Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans — and came in on a six-game skid. But Eric Gordon scored a season-high 35 points, including 22 in the first half when New Orleans led by as much as 17, a lead bigger than any it had blown this season.
“When they’ve got a guy like that on their team that can get going like he can, there’s not really too much you can say about being short-handed,” said Houston forward Terrence Jones, who scored 25 points. “We fought. That’s what I’m most proud of. No matter how much of a struggle, we never gave up.”
Dwight Howard added 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks for the Rockets, who still trailed by eight with about four minutes to go. Harden had a hand in 12 of Houston’s final 17 points, scoring 10 and assisting on Howard’s alley-oop dunk.
“He’s our closer, so he did what closers do,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “We needed it.”
Anthony Davis scored 24 points for New Orleans, his sixth straight game with 20 or more, but he was hampered by foul trouble early in the third quarter after committing three fouls in a span of 1:34, giving him four for the game and prompting coach Monty Williams to bring his star forward to the bench.
Still, Davis and Gordon almost did enough to prevent a seventh straight loss, but the Pelicans struggled offensively in the final couple minutes, when they scored only one point on Davis’ foul shot, which tied the game at 100. On a previous possession, Gordon threw a pass behind Davis and out of bounds. After Harden’s clutch jumper, the Pelicans’ Jason Smith tried to answer from the top of the key, but his shot rimmed out.
Chandler Parsons, who had 17 points, then made one of two free throws, giving New Orleans one more possession to tie, but Darius Miller’s 3 missed and Howard grabbed the game-sealing rebound.
Williams said the play was meant for Miller, even though he’d made only one of his previous five shots.
“My thinking during that time is they’re all over Eric and he can’t even get a decent look at the basket without getting blitzed. So, Darius has the capability of knocking down the shot,” Williams said. “I’m just thankful that Darius shot it with confidence. A lot of times guys don’t even want the ball.”
The Rockets made things difficult for themselves by missing 16 of 41 free throws, and won despite leading for only 1:14 the entire game. Harden’s free throws, which made it 100-99 with 59 seconds left, were Houston’s first lead since being up 9-7 early in the first quarter.
It appeared it could be another long night for the undermanned Pelicans when Howard took an alley-oop lob from Harden and slammed it home with two hands on the opening possession of the game.
Yet New Orleans wound up dominating the first quarter on both ends of the court, from Smith’s crowd-pleasing block of Parsons’ driving dunk attempt to Davis’ windmill jam and his 14-foot jumper as he was fouled.
Gordon had 14 points, including a pair of 3s, in the first quarter, and New Orleans led 30-19 when the period ended.
New Orleans took its largest lead when Al-Farouq Aminu scored five straight points on a 3-pointer and two free throws to make it 44-27.
The Rockets were back within 51-43 when Harden’s no-look, behind-the-head pass set up Donatas Motiejunas’ easy layup. But Davis responded with a jump hook, Gordon added a free throw and New Orleans led 56-45 at halftime.
Notes: Houston finished its four-game road trip at 3-1 and returns home to host Oklahoma City on Thursday night. … The Rockets have won five of six against New Orleans. … Houston outshot New Orleans 51.4 percent (37 of 72) to 45.5 percent (35 of 77).
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