HOUSTON -- Rockets All-Star guard James Harden danced around attempts to describe his performance on Wednesday night as redemptive or validating. But there was no denying that it was special.
Harden finally found his shooting stroke against his former team, and his undisputable brilliance paved the way in the Rockets' riveting 122-119 comeback win over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Toyota Center.
Harden, who shot a combined 9-for-33 in a pair of blowout losses to the Thunder (39-15) earlier this season, scored a career-high 46 points and added eight rebounds and six assists. His 14-point first quarter got the short-handed Rockets rolling, and Harden carried Houston (30-26) home with 16 points in the fourth, including several jaw-dropping shots.
"He had an incredible game. I don't know if I've ever seen anything like that," Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin said. "Forty-six points, a career high, on 19 shots? That's ... I don't even know what to say."
Rockets coach Kevin McHale called Harden, who was 7-of-8 on 3-pointers and 11-of-12 at the free-throw line, a "phenomenal offensive force" -- an apt description given his breathtaking efficiency. And the timing of his heroics should not be discounted, especially given the fact that Oklahoma City opened a 14-point lead with 7:13 left in the fourth.
Harden scored 14 points from that point to spearhead the comeback, tying the game at 111 with a 3-pointer that followed a mesmerizing isolation dribbling display against Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka.
"James was fantastic," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He's an All-Star and we know what he is capable of doing.
"We tried a few players on him, a few different schemes, and in the fourth quarter nothing seemed to work."
While Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha posted a career-high 28 points on 6-of-10 3-point shooting, Thunder All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook again proved adept at filling the ballhandling void created when Harden was traded to Houston just prior to the start of the season.
Durant notched a triple-double of 16 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, while Westbrook added 28 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. But Harden refused to relent, providing points and leadership as the Rockets played without forwards Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris as well as reserve center Cole Aldrich and backup guard Toney Douglas. They were part of a three-team trade that included the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns.
"There were a lot of distractions before the game, but I just rallied the guys together and told them to focus in on every single play," Harden said. "It was going to be a tough game for us, but we've got to focus in on the small detailed things that we went over on the scouting report. The guys did a phenomenal job."
Lin supported Harden with 29 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Houston forward Chandler Parsons chipped in 17 points and six rebounds while ably defending Durant, who shot 4-for-13, down the stretch despite missing time in the second half with a sprained ankle. Lin drained a 3-pointer with 1:46 left to put Houston ahead to stay.
With Harden leading the charge, the Rockets connected on eight of their first 10 3-pointers and led 36-29 heading into the second quarter. But the Rockets followed by missing 10 consecutive treys, and the Thunder didn't waste the chance to race to a lead that eventually ballooned to 107-93 when Sefolosha drilled his final 3. The Thunder appeared in control at that juncture, but recent history against Harden proved null.
"We were trying to play defense, but you have to give them credit because they made some tough shots," Durant said. "They hit some tough 3s. James hit seven 3s and six of them were contested and one was wide open. He hit some tough shots, and that's what great players do, and he willed them to victory."
NOTES: With the trade deadline looming Thursday, the Rockets were busy. Houston shipped Patterson, Aldrich, Douglas and cash to the Kings for forward Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Francisco Garcia and Tyler Honeycutt. Morris was sent to the Suns, where he will play with his twin brother, Markeiff. Houston received a 2013 second-round pick from Phoenix, according to several reports. Patterson and Morris combined to average 20.2 points and 8.8 rebounds as the Rockets' tandem at power forward. Robinson, whose potential is considerable, averaged 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds off the Kings' bench.