Return of Paul lifts Harden, Rockets past Magic

HOUSTON — James Harden’s supporting cast for the Houston Rockets got significantly stronger Sunday, with the return of Chris Paul from a strained left hamstring that sidelined him for more than five weeks.

Paul ranks among the best point guards to ever play the game, but he has no problem accepting a complementary role on the Rockets, particularly after watching Harden’s historic tear while Houston won 12 of the 17 games Paul missed.

That run continued in the Rockets’ 103-98 win over the Orlando Magic on Sunday, when Harden scored 40 points to extend his streak of consecutive 30-plus-point performances to 23 games, which has been surpassed by only Wilt Chamberlain.

“James is going to be James,” Paul said. “I don’t care who on the court — me or anybody. He’s going to be him, and we need him to be him. That’s why he’s the MVP.”

It was a solid return for Paul, who had 12 points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals in 25 minutes, the restriction the Rockets have for him as he eases his way back into action.

“He looked good,” said Harden, who had 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks. “He looked like he had a little extra pep in his step, obviously, his first game back. He did that same spin move and some other moves to check his body and how it felt. He looked great, and he made some big-time shots. It was good to see him back on the floor.”

Added Paul: “It felt great. It’s always better too when you win. I felt good. Obviously, practicing and training and all that is different than the game, but it was key to get out there and play.”

Paul summed up his thoughts on returning in a tweet.

The Rockets are 67-18 in regular-season games Paul has played since his trade to Houston and 27-19 in games he has missed.

Paul’s most productive work occurred when Harden rested. He had four assists in a four-minute span at the start of the second quarter to help Houston get back into the game after a slow start that spotted the Magic a 16-point lead. He hit a couple of 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to keep the Rockets within striking distance.

“He had a spurt there where he was Chris Paul,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “That will lengthen itself out as he gets his legs under him and all that, but I thought he was very good.”

The Rockets sputtered with the starters in at the beginning of both halves, the only time that Harden and Paul played together until late in the fourth quarter. Houston was outscored by 13 points in 11 minutes during those two stints.

After Paul checked in with the score tied and 3:31 remaining, the Rockets finished the game on a 10-5 run, with Harden scoring all of the points except a pair of free throws by Paul with 13.6 seconds remaining.

Harden actually struggled offensively for much of the second half, as he didn’t score from the floor after halftime until he hit a floater with 4:46 remaining. However, he dominated down the stretch, going coast to coast for a tiebreaking transition layup with 2:12 remaining, breaking another tie with a 3-pointer at the 1:15 mark and drilling a dagger, stepback jumper from midrange with 30.5 seconds left after Paul got Harden the ball and cleared out to allow him to go 1-on-1.

D’Antoni expects there to be an adjustment period as Paul gets reacclimated to his role as Harden’s sidekick. Houston’s hope is that Harden, who has a historically high usage rate while averaging the most points (36.3) by any player since Michael Jordan in 1986-87, will benefit from getting a little more rest with Paul back in the fold.

“I think that Chris, when he really feels good, he’ll take a lot of [burden] away from James in the sense of, ‘You don’t have to go every time,'” D’Antoni said. “Then James can even be better. I don’t think his points will go down. I think he will be better. He played 37 minutes [against the Magic]. If we can get it down to 35, it would be great. Then he’ll have even more energy to get more points. I think it will be better in the long run.”

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