James Harden kind of did his best Russell Westbrook impression? The Rockets snuck past the Thunder on Christmas, winning 113–109 in a game featuring its fair share of bricks from both squads. Harden scored 41 while dishing seven assists, but he shot an unruly 15-of-35, including his five-of-16 mark from three. It was not the most aesthetically pleasing basketball from Harden, but much like his fellow former MVP Westbrook has often done, he willed his desperate team to victory without his All-Star running mate Chris Paul.
This is the formula for the Rockets in the absence of Paul: Harden, Harden and more Harden. The Beard played 39 minutes against OKC, and when he wasn’t launching with aplomb, he employed his final boss-level passing to set up his teammates. Clint Capela scored 16 while racking up 23 rebounds. Eric Gordon added 17 points, though his three-point struggles continued. And Austin Rivers chipped in 10 of his own in 31 minutes, including two threes in the fourth quarter.
This wasn’t a particularly artful Christmas Day affair. The offenses looked bogged down in egg nog for the first 12 minutes, before bursting out of the fireplace in the second quarter. Russ and Paul George each had their moments, but they combined for a less-than-ideal 16-of-45 shooting from the field. Westbrook took six threes, about six more than he should be legally allowed to take a game. George was better, also collecting 14 rebounds and burdening himself defensively.
Tuesday was about the Rockets, however, who’ve woken up after a months-long slumber and look somewhat closer to last season’s juggernaut—if you squint hard enough. Houston needs Paul healthy and playing at his All-NBA level to be a real threat, but Harden’s recent scoring bender has the team back on Santa’s nice list. The Rockets moved to only three games behind OKC for the No. 3 seed in the West with their win, a pretty shocking development for a squad that was on the outside of the playoff bracket for much of the season.
The Rockets haven’t always been entertaining to much of NBA Twitter, but they could at least be counted on for high-level talent and a relentless attack. The current, non-Paul version of Houston is grittier and rougher around the edges. Harden has to keep launching, field-goal percentage be damned, if he wants to keep winning. Harden has scored 30 in seven straight and eight of his last nine. In his last three games—two-and-a-half of which have come without Paul—he hasn’t shot over 43%. Gordon is shooting a career-low from three (min. 10 games played), but he’ll also have to keep defenses honest in the absence of Paul.
For Houston, it won’t matter how they win while Paul is out. However many shots it takes or however unappealing it looks, the Rockets are going to be fighting with rocks for the foreseeable future. Christmas was a good start, but as the new year approaches, the wins will have to continue to look like hard work.