Harden scores 44 in loss, grades debut ‘all right’

Fresh off a four-day forced quarantine, which followed weeks of his desire to be traded dominating headlines, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden had a performance Saturday night that reminded people why he’s a perennial MVP candidate.

It just wasn’t quite enough to carry an extremely short-handed Houston team, missing six players due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing, to a win in the Rockets’ delayed season opener.

Harden had 44 points and 17 assists while playing 43 minutes in the 128-126 overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. The only blemish in Harden’s line in the box score was his four turnovers, including one in the final seconds that sealed the loss, when Blazers forward Robert Covington stole a pass after Harden drove down the lane and tried to dish to a teammate.

“It was all right,” Harden said of his performance, which included shooting 12-of-22 from the floor and 6-of-13 from 3-point range. “Too many turnovers, but other than that, first game playing 40-something minutes, I feel like my conditioning could be better obviously, but it was pretty solid. I think we let them get away from us.”

The Rockets’ season opener scheduled for Wednesday was postponed because Houston didn’t have the minimum eight players available. The NBA ruled that Harden was unavailable for that game due to violating the league’s health and safety protocols by attending a private indoor party Monday, which resulted in Harden being fined $50,000.

The Rockets made the road trip with only nine players. New starting point guard John Wall and the Rockets’ three best bench players — Eric Gordon, DeMarcus Cousins and Ben McLemore — are among the Houston players currently in quarantine.

“I’m proud of the way we fought,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “We obviously have some things we need to clean up, but overall I’m so, so proud of this group and how they fought under these circumstances.”

Harden eliminated any doubt that he would compete on the court as the Rockets’ front office patiently explores the trade market in search of a package that represents fair value for a historically elite player in his prime.

Harden dominated as a distributor — dishing seven of his 17 assists to center Christian Wood, who had 31 points and 13 rebounds in his Rockets debut — while engaging in a scoring duel with Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum. As Harden said, McCollum “caught fire” after a slow start, finishing with 44 points on 17-of-30 shooting.

McCollum hit a 3 with 6.9 seconds remaining that proved to be the game-winner when Harden failed to generate a shot on the final possession. Harden had hit a pair of contested stepback 3s — the first to tie the score, the second to take the lead — on the Rockets’ previous two possessions.

“I’ve always said throughout my career that there’s never an NBA game where there isn’t a moment that you’re just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that just happened,’ and he did it like three or four times tonight with the stepbacks,” Silas said. “The plays that he makes, the things that he does, even in the huddle with how smart he is, there’s a lot to him that is really good, and he showed it all tonight.”

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