James Harden puts up MJ numbers to outduel LeBron, push Rockets past Cavs

James Harden kept cooking against the Cavaliers. (Getty)
James Harden kept cooking against the Cavaliers. (Getty)

After James Harden put up the biggest numbers of his career last season thanks in part to the highest free-throw total of his career, the NBA’s Board of Governors elected to institute a “Harden rule” aimed at preventing shooters from getting the benefit of bogus continuation on fouls drawn in the act of shooting. It seems to be working; through 12 games, he’s getting 2.5 fewer trips to the line per game.

He’s still putting up really big numbers, though.

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Harden continued his remarkable start to the season on Thursday, scoring 35 points with 13 assists, 11 rebounds and five steals in 43 minutes to push the Houston Rockets past LeBron James and the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, 117-113. It’s the second triple-double of the season for the All-NBA guard, and the first with 35 or more points and five or more steals since another pretty famous guy who used to wear red did it nearly 30 years ago:

Harden got out of the gate quickly, scoring 11 points with five rebounds and four assists in the first quarter to help stake the Rockets to a 36-25 edge after 12 minutes — the sixth time in 12 games that the slow-starting Cavs have trailed by at least nine points entering the second quarter, according to’s John Schuhmann.

Things looked like they might get even hairier for the Cavs when LeBron, their one source of consistently viable offensive production this season, went down hard with about four minutes to go in the first after stepping on the foot of Rockets forward Trevor Ariza and rolling his left ankle badly:

But after a few scary moments, James got back up, tightened his shoes, got up and down the court a couple of times … and, once he got back in after his early second-quarter rest, started, began unleashing hell:

The Cavs woke up in the second quarter, kickstarted by reserve forward Jeff Green, who worked mismatches in the pick-and-roll and ran the floor with purpose to score an eye-popping 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting in the frame. James kept things rolling, getting that balky left ankle moving to the tune of 16 points of his own on 7-for-8 shooting.

If you’re going to allow 36 points in the first quarter, it’s a pretty good idea to torch the opposition for 42 in the second. That’s exactly what the Cavs did, and they carried a 67-65 lead into halftime.

After taking LeBron’s counterpunch, though, Harden returned fire in kind in the third, setting up Eric Gordon and Ariza for triples before bombing a pair of step-backs of his own to put the Rockets back on top by seven midway through the quarter. Houston held off a surge by Green, who just kept attacking the basket and splashing jumpers like an All-Star, to take a 100-93 lead into the fourth quarter. They’d extend the lead to 13 on a 3-pointer by P.J. Tucker with just over eight minutes to go … but then the Rockets ran out of gas.

A Cavaliers defense that has ranked as the very worst in the NBA through three weeks suddenly started stringing together stops. Gordon and Harden began leaving their jumpers on the front of the rim. Even when Tucker and center Clint Capela pulled down offensive rebounds to extend possessions, nobody could cash in. Houston went scoreless for nearly 3 1/2 minutes, and without a field goal for nearly seven minutes, allowing the Cavs to mount a 13-1 run to claw back to within one point at 112-111 on a pull-up jumper by Green with 1:39 to go.

In desperate need of a bucket to avoid a collapse, coach Mike D’Antoni put the ball in Harden’s hands. The result was … well, probably not what Mike drew up.

Harden dusted Green with a crossover at the top of the key, then sprinted into the lane for a finger roll that clunked off the front of the rim. Capela, Green and James all leapt to try to corral the rebound, knocking the ball loose to the edge of the restricted area. Tucker and Iman Shumpert batted at it, with Tucker diving to the floor after it. Within moments, three bodies were on the floor, vying for possession … only for Harden to reach down, grab it, turn to the basket and quickly loft a lob up for Capela, who dunked it home through the contact of Green for the hoop and the harm, giving Houston a 115-111 lead with 1:10 to go.
After LeBron bowled his way to the rim to cut the deficit to two with just under a minute left, the Rockets again got Harden the rock and asked him to take them home. But they also put Tucker and Capela out there, just to be safe, and that decision paid off handsomely:

Harden’s first missed stepback landed in Tucker’s hands, resetting the shot clock and keeping Cleveland from getting out in transition. His second landed softly in the mitts of Capela, who put it back up and in to push the lead back to four with 10 ticks remaining. And just to make sure it stayed out of reach, Capela ended things with an exclamation point on LeBron’s layup attempt on the other end:

The game-sealing putback and soaring swat made for a dynamite capper for Capela, the 23-year-old center whom many consider to be the X-factor for this Rockets team’s chances of making a real push for a Finals bid. The Swiss national finished with 19 points on nine shots, 13 rebounds (six on the offensive glass) and four blocks in 31 minutes. Tucker added 11 points and nine rebounds (six offensive for him, too) in 29 minutes off the bench. Their contributions helped mitigate off shooting nights from Gordon, Ariza and Ryan Anderson, who combined for 42 points on 36 shots in the win.

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“I thought our guys really scrapped and competed,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said, according to Kristie Rieken of the Associated Press. “But Harden was Harden. He made some tough, contested 3s off the dribble, which we wanted. We contested all of them, but he made some big shots.”

While Lue worked the sunny side of the street, James didn’t seem quite so enthusiastic about the process when the result was falling to 5-7 on the season.

“We played a pretty good game,” said James, who finished with 33 points on 15-for-24 shooting, seven assists and four rebounds, albeit with nine turnovers. “But I’m not here for moral victories. That’s not what I’m about.”

A game-winning airball isn’t exactly what Harden’s about, either, and it doesn’t sound like the ending he had in mind after another stellar performance that boosted his season averages to just under 30 points, 10 assists and five rebounds per game on 46/41/82 shooting splits. Then again, given everything Harden did for Houston in the four quarters leading up to that play, and given the result of Capela and Tucker having his back, we’re guessing he’s fine with the outcome — a ninth win in 12 tries, keeping the Rockets even with the Warriors atop the West.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!