ROCKETS 94, MAVERICKS 93
DALLAS – The 3s were missing. James Harden could not get his final drive to fall. The final seconds were leading to a last shot with the Rockets' winning streak on the line.
It had to end with defense.
After a game in which the Rockets struggled in just about every way, the Mavericks closed to a last chance for the win, only to have Chris Paul swat Jalen Brunson's jumper, securing a 94-93 win against the Dallas Mavericks, giving the Rockets an eight-game winning streak the hard way.
Harden's streak of 43 consecutive games leading the Rockets in scoring ended, with Harden scoring just 20 points, just six in a second-half interrupted by foul trouble. Eric Gordon had 26 with Paul getting nine assists, as the Rockets did just enough to hold off Luka Doncic, who had 19 points, nine assists and a career-high 15 rebounds.
The Rockets' defense, however, earned the win, holding the Mavericks to 15 of 42 shooting in the second half as the Rockets held a third consecutive opponent shy of 100 points for the first time since early November.
The Rockets had struggled nearly all game, and especially just 20 seconds into the second half when Harden was called for a charge, his second offensive foul in a span of 35 seconds, and headed to the bench with the Rockets holding a shaky four-point lead.
With Gordon picking up much of the scoring slack, the Rockets were up five when Harden returned with three minutes left in the third quarter and he immediately added a drive for a three-point play and a 3-pointer. The Rockets led by nine early in the fourth quarter, but as they had from the opening minutes, they missed open 3s, allowing the Mavericks to rally again.
For more than six fourth-quarter minutes, the Rockets managed only a three-point play from Clint Capela. They missed their other six shots, all 3-pointers, in that span, with three turnovers and a pair of missed free throws.
When Tim Hardaway Jr. tossed in a 3-pointer with 4:04 left, the Mavericks had rallied back to tie. Gordon answered immediately with a layup. But the Rockets still could not string together field goals. Capela had a layup blocked by the bottom of the rim. Harden had a 3 blocked and missed his rushed follow to beat the shot clock.
Finally, after the Mavericks missed five straight shots, the Rockets got a 3-pointer to fall. They had missed their previous seven attempts from deep and were 1 of 10 in the fourth quarter when Paul found P.J. Tucker in the corner, with Tucker giving the Rockets a 94-89 lead with 1:49 left.
That left Doncic enough time to go to work, twice setting up Dwight Powell for dunks. When Harden missed a drive with 9.2 seconds left, the Mavericks had time to shoot for the win, but never got their last shot to the rim.
The Rockets got good looks through much of the first half, but did not get a lot to show for that with Harden and Paul misfiring badly from deep and the Mavericks scoring reliably, especially in a pace-slowing parade to the line, on the other end.
Harden was 1 of 7 from deep when he finally put in another 3-pointer and raised his hands to the rafters and let out a shout. Paul followed with a pair of free throws and the Rockets, who had briefly led by as much as 11, had an 11-point lead in the final minute of the half.
The Mavericks, however, had spent the half hanging around within range. Doncic finished a drive and put in a pair of free throws, Dallas' 21st and 22nd attempts of the half, and in between Harden was called for shoving off on Brunson, his fourth foul of the half.
With Harden and Paul a combined 3 of 15 on 3s in the first half, leading to a rare halftime in which the Rockets' backcourt was outscored, with Brunson and Doncic combining for 24, four more points than Harden and Paul had collected, with Doncic adding 13 rebounds, getting his season high before halftime.
As they struggled to pull away, the frustration seemed to show, from the 16 first-half fouls to the 28 missed shots, with so many on open looks.
When Harden picked up his fifth foul on the Rockets' first second-half possession, the irritation with how things were going not only increased, the Rockets seemed to be facing a much tougher test than they expected.