Harden played a bruising 41 minutes and had 39 points, 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals as the Rockets defeated the San Antonio Spurs 108-101 and won for the first time this season without Paul.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni was asked where the line is between letting the reigning league MVP carry the team and putting too much on his plate.
“I haven’t found the line yet — I’m still looking for it,” D’Antoni said. “I can tell him afterward, but he has a better feeling about what he needs to do.”
D’Antoni said Harden is playing in “another atmosphere” following his sixth straight game of scoring at least 30 points. After the Rockets let a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead slip and fell behind 97-96 with three minutes remaining, Harden scored nine of Houston’s final 12 points, including two 3s, to close out the win.
“That’s what we do,” Harden said. “We do it at a high level, we shoot the ball, we shoot it with confidence. Some are going to go in, some aren’t. That’s the way we play.”
The Rockets were playing without Paul, who suffered a Grade-2 left hamstring strain on Thursday night in Miami and is expected to be out at least two-to-four weeks. Houston entered Saturday winless in five games without Paul this season.
Clint Capela had 21 points and a season-high 23 rebounds, and Eric Gordon had 18 points on 4-of-12 shooting from 3-point range.
Capela said his performance was partly inspired by Paul’s absence.
“Everyone needs to step up because we don’t have a choice,” Capela said. “Tonight, we did a great job, but we’ve got a lot of things to work on because Chris is going to be out for a little while so we’re all going to have to step up.”
DeMar DeRozan led San Antonio with 28 points and eight assists. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 18 points, and Rudy Gay added 13.
DeRozan, a childhood friend of Harden’s, said there’s only one thing you can do defensively when Harden gets going.
“Hope he misses,” he said.
The Rockets scored 43 points in the third quarter and carried a 15-point lead in the final period. That followed one of their lowest-scoring first two periods of the season, including a 13-point second quarter. San Antonio led 43-41 at the break.
In the third quarter, the Rockets made 9 of 13 3-pointers and finished the game with 19 3s on 54 attempts (35.2 percent). The Rockets were two games removed from setting an NBA record with 26 3s in a 136-118 win over Washington.
Danuel House Jr. made his first start of the season for Houston. In 28 minutes, House had four points and three rebounds.
Houston missed its first seven shots of the second quarter and went scoreless through the first five minutes of the period. The Rockets ended up with just 13 points in the second quarter, but trailed by just two points at halftime.
The Rockets opened up the third quarter on a 12-0 run and took a 10-point lead. Houston had a season-high 43 points in the third quarter. That followed a 41-point first half.
“I mean, we made shots,” D’Antoni said on Houston’s third-quarter turnaround. “I know it’s a simple answer, but a lot of it is that, and then we cut off that energy. I thought our defense was good all the way from the first quarter on to give ourselves a chance.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Houston’s rebounding made the difference. San Antonio fell to 1-8 when being outrebounded by an opponent on the road. The Spurs were outrebounded 58-43 and gave up a season-high 19 offensive rebounds
“Overall, the killer was the offensive boards,” Popovich said. “Capela was great. I didn’t look at the stat sheet yet, but that was the killer.”
The Rockets have won six of their last seven, while the Spurs lost for just the second time in their last nine games.
“We’ve gotten better, for sure,” Aldridge said. “We’re playing a better brand of basketball, and I think we’ve learned how to play better with each other, and we’ll get better, too.”
Spurs: San Antonio fell to 1-8 when being outrebounded by an opponent on the road. The Spurs were outrebounded 58-43 and gave up a season-high 19 offensive rebounds. … SG Derrick White had three blocks in the game.
Rockets: Backup PG Brandon Knight was playing under a minutes’ restriction that was capped at 20, coach Mike D’Antoni said before the game. Knight played 12 minutes in the game. … SF James Ennis III missed his sixth straight game with a right hamstring strain.
Spurs: Host Nuggets on Wednesday.
Rockets: Host Thunder on Tuesday.