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Tucker, Suns shut down Harden, Rockets

The SportsXchange

HOUSTON -- Phoenix Suns swingman P.J. Tucker was so effusive in his praise of Houston Rockets All-Star guard James Harden that a quick check of the box score was needed to take a recount of their individual matchup.

A second glance confirmed what already was known: Tucker dominated Harden and laid the defensive foundation for the Suns' 97-88 victory over the Rockets on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.

Tucker stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals while helping limit Harden to 14 points on 3-for-17 shooting, including a nightmarish 0-for-10 from behind the 3-point arc. The short-handed Rockets, down three rotation players, produced a season-low point total and shot a season-worst 35.2 percent as their six-game home winning streak ended.

"He's one of the toughest people to guard in the league," Tucker said of Harden. "He's so good once he gets in the lane. If he starts making shots, he's even tougher, so the mindset going in was just try to be physical with him, try to get him in tough spots and try to make him take tough shots."

Rockets guard Aaron Brooks (17 points, six assists, three steals off the bench) drilled a 3-pointer with 7:09 remaining to cut the deficit to 75-74. The Suns (10-9) then reeled off 13 consecutive points to silence Houston once and for all, continuing a pattern of responding to several Rockets runs.

Tucker, Channing Frye and guard Goran Dragic sparked the surge as Phoenix extended to an 88-74 lead. Former Rockets forward Marcus Morris added two critical 3-pointers inside the final four minutes.

Guard Eric Bledsoe paced the Suns with 20 points and seven assists, and Dragic added 19 points.

Houston center Dwight Howard paired 15 points with 18 rebounds but matched Harden with a game-high five turnovers. The Rockets (13-7) committed 23 turnovers that Phoenix converted into 25 points.

"We couldn't get the offense turned over," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "We were going side to side with the ball, way too much dribbling and not enough ball movement, not enough body movement."

The Rockets never trailed while winning their previous five home games, a run the Suns snapped when center Miles Plumlee scored on a put-back after 80 seconds. When Phoenix produced an 8-0 burst to break a 17-17 tie and secure the lead for good late in the first, it offered a preview of what was to come.

For every occasion in which Houston clawed to within one basket, the Suns had a response, typically by forcing a turnover or hitting a perimeter shot. Bledsoe followed a Tucker steal and transition layup with a 3-pointer that keyed a 14-4 run after Houston pulled within 33-30 on 3-pointer by swingman Francisco Garcia.

"They lead the league in fast-break points, so we were just handing them the ball and they were scoring off our turnovers," Harden said.

Trailing 51-40 at the break, Houston opened the second half with a smaller lineup, swapping Brooks and small forward Omri Casspi for Garcia and power forward Terrence Jones. But during the closing stretch of the third quarter, Dragic, Bledsoe, Frye and Tucker all nailed treys while Houston committed four turnovers. That sequence allowed the Suns to rebuild their lead to 73-61 entering the fourth after the Rockets closed to within 63-61 on a Garcia 3-pointer. Phoenix did more of the same in the final period.

"We've had the lead a lot in the fourth quarter and we've blown some, and when you're a young team, that happens," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "You want to see the progress where it doesn't happen as often. They cut (the lead) down, and we could have panicked where all of a sudden we force something up, but we didn't. We got good shots."

NOTES: Rockets F Chandler Parsons missed his second consecutive game with back spasms. Combined with the loss of C Omer Asik (right thigh contusion), Houston played without three rotation players. Rockets G Jeremy Lin is sidelined due to a right knee sprain and contusion. ... Given that Phoenix leads the league in fast-break points (19.7 per game) while the Rockets rank last in turnover rate (18.1 per 100 possessions), Houston coach Kevin McHale was asked if his depleted rotation posed additional cause for concern. "We turn it over with our regular lineup," McHale said. "I don't know if a patchwork (lineup) has anything to do with that." ... While the Suns are adept at transition scoring, they rank just 14th in overall pace at 96.3 possessions per 48 minutes. "We don't have that middle ground," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "If we don't have a full-out fast-break layup or shot, we have a tendency to just walk it up."
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