HOUSTON (AP) — After James Harden scored 61 more points on Friday night to match his career high, Mike D’Antoni was asked the question just about everyone in the NBA is wondering this season.
Who can defend the league’s most unstoppable scorer?
“Me. I can sit him on the bench,” D’Antoni said. “That’s about it.”
Harden scored 27 points in the first quarter and went on a late scoring run to help the Rockets pull out a 111-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
The Rockets trailed 100-94 with four minutes remaining when they went on a 13-2 run to regain the lead. In that stretch, Harden hit three straight three-pointers and two tough jumpers to score all of Houston’s points. He said his mindset was simple.
“Be aggressive,” Harden said. “We were down so we had to make shots and get stops.”
Harden topped the 50-point mark for the eighth time this season, compared with 10 such performances from the rest of the league combined. He matched his career-best total set earlier this season against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
The NBA’s leading scorer surpassed the 30-point mark in the second quarter and the 40-point mark with nine minutes remaining in the third.
“I just knew how important this game was,” Harden said. “This was an opportunity for us to take care of our home so I wanted to come out with some aggressiveness.”
Before Harden’s late surge, the Spurs had overcome a 15-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 81 entering the fourth quarter.
“I was looking for someplace to throw up,” D’Antoni said. “I felt awful. You knew they were going to turn it around. They churned us up and started making shots, but James wouldn’t let us lose.”
Harden was seven of 10 from the field in the first quarter, including three of four from the three-point line, and also went 10 for 12 from the free throw line. His 27 points in the period were the second-most in franchise history, trailing only Vernon Maxwell’s 30 in 1991.
Harden finished nine of 13 from three, 19 of 34 from the field and 14 of 17 from the free throw line.
“You’ve got to appreciate it,” Rockets point guard Chris Paul said of Harden’s run this season. “What he’s doing, that ain’t easy. I don’t care who you are.”
Houston has won 13 of its last 15 games and eight of its last nine at home.
Bryn Forbes led San Antonio with 20 points, while Derrick White added 18 and DeMar DeRozan had 16.
DeRozan said Harden is arguably the greatest isolation scorer in the history of the game.
“He’s been in the zone all year with the things he’s been doing,” DeRozan said. “He’s been remarkable. You’ve got to tip your hats to him. When a guy gets going like that, it’s tough to slow him down.”
Houston led 36-24 at the end of the first quarter and 62-47 at halftime.
“We gave up a million points in the first quarter, they had 19 free throws in the first half and none in the third quarter,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “You play with your heart but you play between the ears, also, so we played smarter and harder in the second half, but you can’t do that against a good team like Houston or any team in the NBA.
“You’ve got to play for 48 minutes. We played the last two quarters and at the end, James put on an MVP-type performance so that’s that.”
Harden’s 61 points were the most ever scored individually against a Popovich-coached team.
Rockets forward PJ Tucker went scoreless and zero for three from the three-point line but had 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks. He was frequently tasked with guarding Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, his former teammate at Texas, who scored 10 points on five-of-13 shooting.