James Harden Scores 55 Points as Rockets Survive Scare vs. Cavaliers

Michael Shapiro

James Harden's fourth-quarter scoring binge saved the Rockets from disaster in Cleveland on Wednesday night. The NBA's points leader scored 55 as Houston defeated the Cavaliers 116–100, advancing Harden and Co. to 16–8 on the season. 

The Rockets were cruising to a double-digit victory in the third quarter, holding a 13-point lead after a furious dunk by Russell Westbrook with less than two minutes left in the third. But the Cavs came roaring back behind a career night from rookie Kevin Porter Jr., who finished the evening with a season-high 24 points. It would take another dominant fourth quarter from Harden to escape Cleveland with a victory, and The Beard delivered with 20 points in the final 12 minutes. Harden bailed out the Rockets once again as they advanced to eight games over .500.

Here are three takeaways from Wednesday's victory. 

Harden Torches Cavaliers Coverage

Wednesday night was likely a welcome respite for Harden, and not just because the Cavaliers entered the contest No. 27 in defensive rating. First-year head coach John Beilein deviated from the coaching crowd in his team's defense of Harden, allowing the two-time scoring champion to face single coverage throughout the evening. Not only did the Cavs leave a solo defender on Harden in isolation situations, they allowed switches with ease, often leaving center Tristan Thompson or diminutive guard Darius Garland on Harden. The results weren't pretty.

Harden tallied 17 first-quarter points, then erupted once again in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers didn't have the requisite rim deterrence to bother Harden on drives, and neither Collin Sexton nor Porter Jr. made a defensive impact in single coverage. Most coaches since mid-November have sent exaggerated help toward Harden, daring his teammates to hit open shots. Beilein allowed Harden to bury his team one step-back at a time.

Fourth-Quarter Defensive Lapse

Harden's one-man show saved the Rockets on Wednesday, but the dominant performance would not have been necessary had Houston's defense held up throughout the third and fourth quarter. The Rockets noted their defensive lapses after Monday's loss to the Kings, and the same issues arose in Cleveland on Wednesday. Houston remains soft in the middle when Clint Capela sits. Its rotation onto perimeter shooters can oscillate from middling to maddening. Porter banged home four triples in the third quarter, making three without a defender in his general vicinity. The defensive tape won't be pretty for head coach Mike D'Antoni on the flight to Orlando.  

The Rockets have the personnel to be a top 10 defensive unit. They clamped down for a two-week stretch in November, ranking fourth in defensive rating as Houston won seven out of eight games. But the team's effort hasn't matched its talent in stretches throughout the season. The defensive struggles cost Houston on Monday, and they nearly earned the Rockets a second straight loss on Wednesday night. 

Supporting Cast Struggles

It was a two-man show in Cleveland on Wednesday. Harden was the headliner with 55 points, while Russell Westbrook was an impactful physical force with 23 points, seven rebounds and four steals. Cleveland's lack of backcourt size was glaring against Westbrook, who attacked the rim at will in the second half. 

Harden and Westbrook combined for 78 of Houston's 116 points on Wednesday, and few other Rockets showed up for the contest. P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and Ben McLemore combined to shoot 6-22 from the floor, while Gary Clark and Chris Clemons provided minimal contributions in limited minutes. Harden's scoring explosion came on the right night. 

Tucker made up for his rough performance late in Wednesday's contest. He drilled a wide-open corner three to give Houston a 112-108 lead in the final minute, nailing his signature shot to bury the hapless Cavaliers. 

Tucker entered Wednesday night leading the NBA in corner threes with 40 makes on 79 attempts. He led the NBA last season with 109 made corner threes. 

Up Next: at Orlando on Friday

The Rockets will finish their two-game road trip with a trip down to Orlando to face the Magic on Friday. Orlando enters the matchup at 11–13 following a loss to the Lakers on Monday, currently holding onto the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. 

Tip-off from the Amway Center is slated for 6 p.m. CT. 

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