Russell Westbrook carries Rockets as James Harden struggles with shot, thigh injury
MINNEAPOLIS - James Harden had spent the night trying to get his shot going again but suddenly had a greater concern than whether his 3s were falling or even that the Timberwolves had rallied to be back on the Rockets' heels.
Harden had taken a knee from Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns to the thigh, and for all the pacing and jumping Harden tried, the leg would not bounce back any more than he could recover his shooting touch.
When he limped to the Rockets' locker room with a bruised left thigh, as much as Russell Westbrook had been carrying the Rockets through the night, much as he had through the past weeks of Harden's slumps, the Rockets' issues seemed to be growing.
Harden, however, returned, though struggling to move. The Rockets, however, still had Westbrook at his best at Target Center. And when he hit the Timberwolves with one more blast, the Rockets walked away with a 131-124 win Friday, getting so much from their guards other than Harden that his season-low 12 points hardly mattered.
Westbrook scored 15 of his season-high 45 points in the final eight minutes, driving the Rockets through the many rough spots and to the win they needed with a back-to-back looming, potentially with Harden out and Westbrook to miss one of the coming games.
Asked the chances of playing Sunday, Harden indicated it was much too soon to know.
"The game just finished," he said.
The Rockets, however, still had a superstar in the backcourt to turn to.
"That was an 'in case of emergency, break the glass,'" Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We've been saying it for about two months now. He's been playing well. That's MVP Russ."
He was not the only Rockets guard to get a season-high, with Eric Gordon scoring 27 off the bench to top the season-best he had established Wednesday. With Austin Rivers adding 17, making 7 of 8 shots, the Rockets had enough to make up even for missing the league's leading scorer.
"That's why you just have to stay the course and play the game like we should," Gordon said. "We got to be able to win the game whenever whoever is out. That's what we need to do. I know he's a big part of what we do. Even if he's out, we still have to find ways and figure out ways for everybody to contribute to get a win."
A month ago, the Rockets likely would not have been able to put up 131 points on a night Harden made just 3 of 13 shots, missing all six of his 3-pointers.
Westbrook, however, had found his place in the Rockets' offense, attacking the rim relentlessly. He did not take a 3-pointer Friday and has taken just one - in the final seconds when down three against Oklahoma City - in the past four games, the longest stretch of his career attempting just one 3-pointer. But he has scored at least 20 points in 19 consecutive games, the longest run for any Rockets player other than Harden since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994-95.
Westbrook has scored at least 30 in six of his past seven games, scoring 28 in the other.
As much as ever, the Rockets needed all he could give them, and Westbrook seemed to see how much he would have to do.
"The game will always tell you what to do," Westbrook said. "I always believe in that. When my team needs me to do certain things on the floor, I'm always prepared. I always make sure my mind is in the right place to do that."
On Friday, that meant driving into the teeth of the Timberwolves' defense. The Wolves sagged into the lane, giving up the midrange shots the Rockets don't generally want. Westbrook banked in a few of those. But for most of the game, he headed to the rim.
"I was only taking the shots I wanted," Westbrook said. "That's me maturing in this game and figuring out my spots and shooting the ball when I'm ready to. Just reading and reacting. Quick attacks. Finding ways to get into their defense, making plays for myself or finding ways to get my teammates open shots."
Down the stretch, he set up Gordon for a corner 3 and Clint Capela for a lob dunk as the Rockets not only pushed the lead back to double figures but looked far more potent than when they needed Harden to carry them.
"Guys are playing well," Harden said. "That's what we need."
Clive James, the Australian writer and broadcaster known around the world for his dry wit, has died at the age of 80. Diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010, the author and critic had movingly written about his terminal illness during the final years of his life.
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