Rockets’ Harden caps preseason with a scoring flourish

MIAMI (AP) – James Harden sure seems in midseason form. Russell Westbrook isn’t there yet.

Harden, the reigning NBA scoring champion, scored 44 points in 35 minutes – 18 of those points coming in the third quarter – and the Houston Rockets ended the preseason with a 144-133 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night.

“James was ridiculous,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden was 12 for 26 from the field, eight for 16 from three-point range and 12 for 13 from the foul line. He also had seven assists and five rebounds, and finished the preseason averaging 31.5 points.

“That’s the way he’s wired,” D’Antoni said. “He loves to play. I couldn’t take him out in the fourth quarter if I wanted to. He’d play the full 48 minutes if he could.

“He’s wired that way. He gets better every time. I don’t know what his ceiling is. But he is, to me, the most improved player every year. He’s just ridiculous.”

The Rockets didn’t get out of the game unscathed, however. Austin Rivers could play only seven minutes before being downgraded to out with neck soreness, and Westbrook – who has been dealing with some dislocated fingers on his right hand – left the game in the fourth quarter in obvious discomfort.

Westbrook lost the ball, immediately grabbed at his right hand, then ran off the court and straight into the tunnel leading to the Rockets’ locker room without stopping. He finished with 16 points, four rebounds and four assists on six-for-13 shooting in 26 minutes.

“Both of them told me they were okay, so we’ll take that,” D’Antoni said.

D’Antoni said Westbrook aggravated the finger issue, and will be fine. A top task for the Rockets in this preseason was figuring out all the ways to best utilise their new point guard, with D’Antoni acknowledging it is still a bit of a work in progress.

The Houston Rockets coach said, “He’s a great guy. Works hard. Unbelievable athletically. Just the speed and power that he can play with… he’s relentless.”

Westbrook will have a few extra days to get through the issue with his fingers. He and the Rockets don’t open the regular season until playing host to Milwaukee next week.

Houston Rockets’ James Harden jumps to score against Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow during the NBA pre-season game. PHOTO: AP