James Harden Ends Slump as Rockets Thrash Nuggets

Michael Shapiro

The Rockets' walk to the locker room after their 121-105 win over the Nuggets on Wednesday was certainly a different scene than what followed their loss to Oklahoma City on Monday. What was a silent march through the tunnel two days ago became an upbeat affair, highlighted by claps and high fives throughout the roster. It took just one win to restore the positive spirit at the Toyota Center.

Houston had plenty to celebrate after Wednesday's victory. James Harden improved from the field and Eric Gordon began to find a rhythm, while Russell Westbrook decimated Denver's defense in the paint. Houston appears back on track as it approaches a four-game road trip at 27–16. 

Here are three takeaways from Wednesday's victory:

Harden Returns to Form

Harden's poor performance in Houston's four-game losing streak was certainly puzzling, though it wasn't of much concern to the Rockets as they tumbled to sixth in the Western Conference standings. Mike D'Antoni was confident Harden would return to his efficient ways soon, and the two-time scoring champion added an extra half hour of shooting after the collapse against Oklahoma City. Harden's bounce-back came right on cue as Houston ended its cold stretch. 

It wasn't the three-ball that powered Harden on Wednesday. He attempted just six triples, making two in a pedestrian performance from beyond the arc. So how did Harden get to 27 points? By feasting at the free-throw line. 

Harden finished the night 13-15 from the charity stripe, attempting just 13 shots in 31 minutes. Four of Harden's six field goals came in the paint, and he appeared to make a concerted effort to attack the rim in the opening minutes. Harden leaned on free throws and layups as he works out of a shooting slump. Perhaps the three will join him on the road. 

"[Harden] will figure it out," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "He was 2-6 [from three] tonight. Obviously I'm not worried about James."

Westbrook Continues Strong Stretch

Harden was solid in Houston's win on Wednesday. Russell Westbrook was downright spectacular. The eight-time All-Star led all players with 28 points, adding eight assists and four steals. Westbrook was perhaps more impressive than his gaudy stat line. 

Westbrook ran roughshod over the depleted Nuggets defense throughout Wednesday evening, attacking the rim with abandon. Houston's point guard didn't attempt a single three on the evening, and nine of his 11 field goals came inside the paint. Nikola Jokic didn't protect the rim. Monte Morris couldn't stay in front of the former MVP. Westbrook is averaging 30 points per game in his last ten appearances. He's found his groove within the Rockets' attack since New Year's Eve.

"[Westbrook] is so versatile, he gets everybody involved," Harden said postgame. "Once he’s attacking the rim and doing what he does, everybody’s on alert. Guys get open shots, we saw that from Eric [Gordon], we saw that from P.J [Tucker], we saw that from all the guys that made shots."

Westbrook punished Denver on the glass with a season-high 16 rebounds on Wednesday, and the performance was no accident. Westbrook noted postgame he's making a concerted effort to attack rebounds with greater aggression, looking to jumpstart the Rockets' fast break. His plan came to fruition on Wednesday. 

"I've been BS-ing, leaving it up to Clint [Capela] when that's a huge part of my game," Westbrook said postgame. "I'm going to stay locked in on that. ...I feel like I'm the best at that at my position."

Eric Gordon Adds Spark

Eric Gordon had been in a relative slump over the last two games, combining to go 4-17 from three. The performances continued Gordon's uneven play since returning to the floor on Dec. 29, an issue he acknowledged on Tuesday. Perhaps Wednesday night will turn the tide.

Gordon finished the evening with a season-high 25 points, banging home six threes on eight attempts. It was a feast of open shots for Gordon, who thrived on catch-and-shoot opportunities generated by Westbrook. With Houston's two MVPs commanding such a significant share of defensive attention, Gordon is bound to get open triples. He knocked them down on Wednesday. 

"I needed [a strong game] just like a lot of other guys," Gordon said postgame. "We just need to get back in this flow where we're unstoppable on offense and defensively we're like a pest. If we can do that we'll be good."

Up Next: at Minnesota on Friday

The Rockets will look to earn their second win in a row on Friday as they kick off a four-game road trip. Houston is 2–0 against the Timberwolves this season, but a grueling stretch awaits after the matchup in Minnesota. The Rockets face the Nuggets and Jazz in a back-to-back, then travel to Portland before returning home on Jan. 31.

Tip-off from the Target Center in Minneapolis is slated for 7 p.m. CT. 

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