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James Harden's Brilliance Not Enough for Rockets in Loss to Pacers

The playoffs can't come soon enough for James Harden. As for his teammates, another week or so would be greatly appreciated. 

Wednesday's 108-104 loss to the Pacers magnified the gulf between Houston's MVP and his teammates. Harden erupted for 45 points against Indiana, going 13-21 from the field as he snagged 17 rebounds and added nine assists. Harden isn't rounding into form as the playoffs approach. He's nearing the peak of his powers. 

If only the rest of the Rockets could follow Harden's lead. Houston continues to be bit by the injury bug in Orlando, with Russell Westbrook's MRI on Wednesday marking the latest blow. Perhaps Westbrook's quad will heal in time for Game 1 of the first round, but that's certainly no guarantee. Add a sprained toe for Danuel House, a hurt hand for P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon's still-improving ankle, and the Rockets are far from 100 percent with one seeding game left. Harden will need to carry the load early in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. Perhaps he can take it easy on Friday vs. Philadelphia.

Here are three takeaways from Wednesday's loss:

Harden Leads the Way

Any concerns regarding James Harden entering Orlando have certainly dissipated after the first seven seeding games. Harden torched the Lakers with a 39-point effort on Aug. 9, and he turned in one of his best performances of the season on Wednesday. The matchup with Indiana frankly resembled Rockets contests before the Chris Paul era. Harden hunted switches and punished isolation defenders as he was surrounded by a subpar supporting cast, carrying an offensive burden seldom seen previously in NBA history. If Russell Westbrook isn't available to start the postseason, we could see a similar version of Harden return. 

Harden's 17 rebounds are likely an outlier, but we shouldn't discount the chance of a numerous 40-point eruptions in the postseason. Harden's step-back appears to be in prime form, and he's creating impressive separation with presumably fresh legs. He's also absorbing plenty of contact inside, noting postgame the need to attack the basket with Westbrook out of the lineup. It seems as though Harden is more than up to the task, with or without his fellow MVP.

"My aggressive mentality happens no matter who’s on the floor," Harden said postgame. "I think what we missed was his ability to get to the basket, draw defenders in and create opportunities for the rest of our team.”

Gordon Struggles in Return

On a positive note, Eric Gordon did look relatively quick and active in his first seeding game appearance. But the Indiana product still turned in quite the ugly stat line as he returned from an ankle sprain suffered on July 28. Gordon scored 13 points on 15 shots on Wednesday, and he added six turnovers to a 1-9 mark from three. Gordon got the looks he's used to vs. Indiana. He couldn't quite shake the rust in limited minutes. 

"[Gordon] is rusty," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "I think it's good that he hit the floor today and he'll hit the floor Friday. He needs that work."

Gordon's performance on Wednesday wasn't exactly encouraging, but any minutes at all is preferable to Gordon riding the bench until the playoffs begin. Houston's guard noted on Wednesday he felt good in his 20 minutes, and frankly that's what truly matters at this point in the seeding games. Friday will provide Gordon another opportunity to find his groove in Orlando. 

"I felt pretty good out there," Gordon said postgame. "I've still got to get my timing back right and mechanics of getting into my shot. That will come in time. But it was good to show explosiveness and all that."

Tucker Exits Late

The Rockets were already without two starters on Wednesday as Westbrook and House sat, and a third member of Houston's core exited the game in the fourth quarter.

P.J. Tucker appeared to get his hand caught in Victor Oladipo's jersey with just over six minutes to play on Wednesday, and he promptly walked to the sideline holding his left hand. Tucker did not return to the game, though D'Antoni noted postgame that Tucker "should be fine," for at least the start of the playoffs if not Friday's matchup vs. Philadelphia. D'Antoni noted Tucker has battled a hand issue throughout the season, and Wednesday's incident exacerbated the injury. The NBA's iron man isn't missing playoff games anytime soon. But the Rockets will look to avoid any nick or bruise possible as the postseason approaches.

Up Next: vs. 76ers on Friday

We could see the skeleton-crew Rockets alongside James Harden on Friday night as Houston could be without Tucker, House and Westbrook. Philadelphia is battling its own injury woes with Ben Simmons out for the season and Joel Embiid nursing an ankle injury.

Tip-off on Friday is slated for 8 p.m. CT.