HOUSTON - With the All-Star Game one weekend away, Houston Rockets guard James Harden took another step toward cementing his superstar status.
Harden hit his first nine shots en route to a game-high 35 points, leading the Rockets to a critical 118-103 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night at Toyota Center.
A first-time All-Star, Harden also led Houston, which will host All-Star Weekend, with 11 assists to cap a week that included a triple-double on Saturday against the Bobcats, and a 36-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist effort at Miami Wednesday night.
"Just being aggressive (was key)," Harden said. "My shots were falling so it was opening everything else up. Teammates were knocking down shots and it's tough to guard us when my teammates are knocking down shots and I'm getting easy layups. It was a good team effort tonight."
The Rockets (28-24) needed his brilliance. Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge had 31 points and 11 rebounds, extending a streak in which he has scored 20 points or more at Toyota Center to 10 straight games. Rookie guard Damian Lillard added 18 points while forward Nicolas Batum scored 21 of his 24 points in the second half to keep Portland (25-25) afloat -- for a while.
After matching the NBA single-game record of 23 3-pointers on Tuesday night against the Warriors, the Rockets maintained their torrid shooting. Their effective field goal percentage, a stat incorporating the value of 3-pointers relative to shots inside the arc, hovered above 70 percent well into the fourth quarter. Houston finished 12-for-26 from deep against the Blazers and shot 59.5 percent overall.
Forwards Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson chipped in 20 and 16 points, respectively, and shot a combined 16-for-25 to support Harden.
"Houston has been shooting the ball well these days and they shot the ball well against us," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "Obviously in that first half the 3-point ball was going, but they were shooting it well inside and outside, midrange and getting to the rim. We didn't have many answers for them defensively."
As has been the case so often during his first season in Houston, Harden was the linchpin. He had 20 points on 8-for-8 shooting by the intermission, and his eight first-half assists came against only one turnover. Harden had three turnovers while controlling the tempo over 37 minutes.
"He was really efficient," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "He's done quite well. He's making shots and he's making plays. The thing I like about it is he had 11 assists. It was really impressive.
"You look at a guy with 35 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds and threw a steal in there, just to have one of those too."
Even when Harden finally missed, something positive happened for the Rockets as Patterson converted an errant 17-footer into an emphatic follow-up dunk for an 82-69 lead with 4:30 left in the third period.
The Blazers defeated the Rockets in overtime in both previous meetings this season, with the latter victory including a 15-point, second-half rally. On this occasion, though, the Rockets' offense did not fail them, and the Blazers' confidence from past success wasn't sufficient to stem the tide.
"When we were down 15, we felt that we could come back," Batum said. "They played good tonight. They've played good the last couple games."
NOTES: No team in the NBA is more dependent upon the production of its starters than the Trail Blazers, whose quintet of Aldridge, Batum, Lillard, Wesley Matthews and JJ Hickson account for 85.4 percent of the Blazers' scoring. Lillard (a rookie), Batum and Aldridge shoulder an especially heavy load, ranking a respective fourth, fifth and 11th in the league in minutes played. "The guys who are important to their teams play a lot of minutes; they play 37, 38 minutes (per game)," Stotts said. "We happen to have three or four of those guys." ... Hickson has been a pleasant surprise for Portland despite playing out of position at center. He ranks fifth in the NBA in rebound rate at 20.9 percent, well above his previous high of 17.7 percent set with Cleveland in 2010-11. "He gives them energy, he really hits the boards well," McHale said. "He runs and gets easy baskets for them. He does a lot of good stuff."