Rockets beat Kings, clinch West’s No. 8 seed
HOUSTON - Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff admitted to weighing the risks of reinserting James Harden into a game Houston led by 29 points in the fourth quarter, but considering the myriad of frustrations his team faced, relishing an individual accomplishment was a worthy endeavor.
Harden capped a marvelous statistical season as the Houston Rockets claimed the final playoff berth in the Western Conference with a 116-81 win over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.
Harden finished with 38 points on 13-of-27 shooting and joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history to average 29 points, six rebounds and seven assists in a season.
Harden scored 19 points in the third quarter and re-entered the game to pursue the milestone with 7:50 remaining and Houston leading 100-71. He completed a three-point play 35 seconds later to push his season averages to 29 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists — all career highs.
“Those are Hall of Famers, all those guys,” Harden said. “It’s a great individual accomplishment to be with those guys. Credit my teammates for helping me get that. They did a really good job of getting off the ball and getting me into position where I could score the basketball.”
Dwight Howard added 14 points and 10 rebounds for Houston. Patrick Beverley had nine points and career highs in assists (12) and steals (six). Clint Capela also chipped in a career-high 17 rebounds as the Rockets led wire-to-wire in eliminating the Utah Jazz from postseason contention before they tipped off against the Lakers in Los Angeles.
“It’s a continuation of our season,” Bickerstaff said. “If we would have sat here at the beginning of the year, making the playoffs wouldn’t have been this big of a struggle. We had expectations of making the playoffs, so now we’ve got to go get busy.”
The Rockets (41-41) closed the regular season with three consecutive victories to set the stage for a postseason rematch with the Golden State Warriors, who eliminated Houston in the Western Conference finals en route to the NBA title last year. Game 1 is set for Oakland this weekend.
Houston obliterated the short-handed Kings (33-49), who played without seven regulars. Ben McLemore paced Sacramento with 24 points. Kosta Koufos added a double-double of 12 points and 11 assists.
Kings coach George Karl, facing reports of his demise in Sacramento, was philosophical afterward.
“This season had a lot of roller coaster to it but in the same sense I think we had a lot of good,” Karl said. “If I’m evaluating the season I think we’ve built a good foundation to go on and move forward. I don’t make that decision.
“For me I love the game of basketball, I love the opportunity. I’m humbled to be one of 30 coaches in this league to have the opportunity to go out there and coach against the best basketball players, the best referees and the best teams in the world.
“There were many, many more good days than bad days but there’s no question this season had a lot of negative energy to it. I’m proud of how we’ve persevered and fought through it and actually became a stronger team as this season finished.”
Houston wasted little time establishing its dominance, grabbing a 15-5 lead on a Beverley 3-pointer with 7:41 left in the first quarter. The Rockets extended that lead to 20 when Corey Brewer completed a fast-break dunk with 11:18 remaining in the first half, a transition basket that was part of a 19-4 run that stretched the advantage to 49-27.
Sacramento managed one last push for respectability, slicing the deficit to 19 points with a 10-0 run late in the second quarter. But Harden opened the second half with seven quick points before enjoying a 10-point individual run that upped the lead to 88-57 with 2:42 left.
Closing a season featuring so many failures with such a flourish proved cathartic for the Rockets, who can now reboot their aspirations.
“A lot of people wrote us off, thought we weren’t going to make the playoffs,” Harden said. “Here we are.”
NOTES: Kings coach George Karl did not directly address published reports that he will be fired by the team on Thursday but did comment on the task of potentially serving in a lame-duck capacity against the Rockets. “It’s easy to coach,” Karl said. “This is a fun game for everyone.” Karl also spoke at length about the role continuity plays in building a franchise foundation, a veiled shot at his job status. ... Having struggled with first-quarter production for long stretches this season, the Rockets appear to have righted their ship of late, averaging 35.3 points in the opening period over the three games preceding the finale. ... The Kings played the season finale without Rudy Gay, Caron Butler, Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins, Darren Collison, Marco Belinelli and Omri Casspi.