James Harden hits the game-winner against San Antonio, as Houston continues its tear (Video)

When the Houston Rockets visited the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 20, the team was 9-10 and about to fall again in its 20th game of the season. Jeremy Lin was struggling, James Harden was playing well but still trying to find his way with a team that had traded for him just days before the season started, and most importantly coach Kevin McHale was away from the team, grieving the loss of his daughter Sasha. The Rockets competed against the vaunted Spurs, though, with Lin having his best game of the young season, as the team nearly pulled out an overtime win.

Since then, Houston has gone on a tear – winning 30 of its next 50 games all while playing one of the more entertaining styles of ball in the NBA. When the Spurs visited Houston on Sunday night the longtime division rivals locked up in yet another close contest, with James Harden taking and making the most important shot of the game. Watch:

San Antonio responded a possession later with a guard-around screen that saw Tim Duncan keep the ball and miss a 14-foot jumper. Manu Ginobili’s tip at the buzzer did not go in, his last attempt in a 1-6 night from the field. Ginobili, who apologized over the weekend for a poor defensive decision late in San Antonio’s win over Utah, is struggling – shooting 8-31, 25.8 percent, over his last three games.

Back to Harden, owner of a classic “great defense, better offense”-move in this game-winning instance.

Spurs wing Kawhi Leonard is already one of the league’s better defenders of off guards and small forwards, and he did well to attempt to use his length to force Harden into the sort of contested mid-range shots San Antonio has always tried to encourage opponents to take. It’s very possible that, even as a left-hander, Harden’s shot could have been blocked by the longer Leonard had he jumped straight into the air. Instead, he jumped back and to his right, negating Leonard’s attempts to sky for the block.

(Omer Asik’s borderline-moving screen may have helped, too. Still, as Rockets analyst Matt Bullard noted, Asik did well to seal Tim Duncan off and get into perfect offensive rebounding position, should Harden’s shot rim out.)

In a month, we’ve gone from wondering if the Rockets would end up being the playoff casualty once the Los Angeles Lakers got their act together (though we insisted the Rockets would stay in the playoff bracket), to watching them dive to just a half game in back of the Golden State Warriors for the sixth seed in the West. On top of that, the team leads the NBA in possessions per game, a very entertaining pace, and still has plenty of assets and cap room to look forward to this offseason.

The team has won three straight and seven of 10, and though Harden’s shooting percentages dipped a bit after his white-hot February (when he averaged nearly 29 points per game on a ridiculous 53 percent shooting mark, with 41 percent of his three-point makes going in) Lin has picked up the slack. Though he struggled on Sunday, Lin has made half his shots in March, contributing 14.7 points and 5.5 assists per game.

As it stands, the Rockets would be set to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, or the Denver Nuggets should they pass Golden State for the sixth seed. Those would be two ridiculously entertaining series, full of the new playoff blood that seems to be everywhere out West.

New blood that is familiar with each other, at least. Some five and a half months after being traded from Oklahoma City, the James Harden-led Houston Rockets may get a chance to upend the defending Western champs in the first round.

Also, this is pretty cool:

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