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Suns Strokes: Harden’s 40-point performance carries Houston past Phoenix

It was quite the encore performance for James Harden.

Just 18 days after he beat the Phoenix Suns at the buzzer, the former Arizona State Sun Devil scored a game-high 40 points in a 127-118 Houston Rockets win in front of 17,071 at US Airways Center.

Harden scored 20 fourth-quarter points, hitting 7-of-10 shots and all five of his free throws to send the Suns into the NBA All-Star break with their fifth loss in six games.

The Suns (29-25) appeared as if they had started the break a day early, allowing the Rockets to score a season-best 41 points in a 41-23 first quarter.

The deficit was reduced to nine at the half, 70-61, and then erased completely four minutes into the third quarter on a pair of free throws by Eric Bledsoe, who had missed the game at Sacramento for the birth of his son, Ethan. Bledsoe arrived earlier in the day and scored a team-best 32 points to go along with four rebounds, four assists and two steals.

His 19-foot pull-up jumper capped a 16-0 third-quarter run to put the Suns up 81-73, a lead that vanished in the fourth quarter thanks to Harden’s heroics. He fell an assist shy of a triple-double, finishing with 12 rebounds and nine assists.

The Rockets (36-16) beat the Suns for the fifth straight time.

THE GOOD

Talk about filling up the stat sheet. Bledsoe had one point, three assists, one steal and one blocked shot—an emphatic rejection of Patrick Beverley that sent the ball out of bounds—in 7:32 of the first quarter. Bledsoe accounted for nine of the Suns’ 23 points in the period.

Seven different Suns scored in the first quarter with Goran Dragic leading the way. He had eight points on 3-of-6 shooting, including one 3-pointer and added two rebounds, both on the offensive end. Dragic finished the game with 20 points, his 17th 20-point game of the season.

After missing four of his first five shots, Markieff Morris made three straight baskets, part of a 15-4 start to the second quarter to pull the Suns within seven, 45-38, at 8:47. He finished the period with eight points, and went into the locker room with a team-high 11 for the half.

The Suns scored 13 of their 38 second-quarter points from the foul line. At the 7:28 mark, they were in the penalty and proceeded to make 9-of-11 free throws. Bledsoe had the most success, scoring seven of his team-best nine points in the period from the charity stripe.

With the insertion of Thomas into the game at 4:55 of the second quarter, the Suns scored eight unanswered points. The small lineup — three point guards, PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris — pulled the team to within a single possession, 57-54, in less than 90 seconds.

The Suns opened the second half with a 20-3 run, including 16 unanswered points, to turn a nine-point deficit into an eight-point advantage, 81-73, at the 5:38 mark of the third quarter. Bledsoe scored eight of his 10 points in the period during the run.

The Suns got as close as 96-95 with 10:01 remaining in the fourth quarter. Again, it was Bledsoe, who had 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting, including a pair of 3s, and two free throws. He did much of his damage from the charity stripe, connecting on a career-high 12 of his 13 attempts.

Miles Plumlee blocked a game-high four shots. He has now blocked at least four shots in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

THE BAD

Seven turnovers and 10 missed shots — on 15 attempts — put the Suns in an early hole, 24-11, at 4:03, of the first quarter. The Rockets converted those seven miscues into 12 points and thanks to 7-2 rebounding edge recorded 11 second-chance points.

The Rockets’ 41 first-quarter points matched a Suns opponent season-high thanks to 58.3 percent shooting (14-of-24, including 5-of-8 from 3). All five Rockets starters scored with Harden making just one field goal, a 3-pointer, and going 4-of-6 from the foul line for seven points.

With their lead trimmed to three, the Rockets went on a 10-2 run to bring their advantage back up to double-digits, 67-56, at 1:32 of the second quarter. Josh Smith scored four of his 12 first-half points during the run. He was one of four Rockets in double figures at the break.

The Rockets’ 70 first-half points matched a Suns opponent season-high thanks to 17 points off of 12 Suns’ turnovers and a 20-4 edge in second-chance points.

The Rockets re-took the lead for good only 14 seconds into the fourth quarter on Harden’s four-point play. He was fouled on the made 3-pointer by Marcus Morris. Attempting a 3 later in the period, Harden was fouled by Isaiah Thomas and hit all three free throws, part of an 11-of-14 night at the charity stripe.

STAT OF THE GAME

40: Harden recorded his league-leading sixth 40-point performance of the season

HE SAID IT

“Harden, it’s tough because he does such a good job of drawing guys to you and then he throws the pass right out there. In the third quarter, they were missing their shots and then in the fourth quarter, they made almost every 3 it seemed like. He creates those. He draws everybody and throws it and passes it at the same time. That’s why he’s one of the best in the league. He knows how to do that.” — Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek on Harden’s performance

NOTED

Alex Len (sprained right ankle) missed his third straight game though “if it was a playoff game…he could probably try” to play according to Hornacek

Former Suns star Grant Hill was back in the arena, working as a color analyst on the TNT broadcast

Former Arizona governor Jan Brewer took in the game, sitting courtside

UP NEXT

Well, it’s going to be awhile before we see the Suns next in action.

They don’t hit the court again until Friday, Feb. 20 when they travel to Minnesota to play the Timberwolves. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. with pregame coverage beginning 30 minutes earlier on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

The Suns are 9-2 in their last 11 games at Target Center.

Overall, the Suns have won three straight in the series, including the first two of four meetings this season.

In the last matchup on Jan. 16, the Suns extended their season-long home winning streak to five games with a 110-99 win at US Airways Center. Dragic scored a team-high 21 points on 10-of-17 shooting, while Len had a game-best 12 rebounds to run his double-digit rebounding streak to four games, the longest by a Suns player since 2012.