Like seemingly everything else for the Houston Rockets these days, they made it look ridiculously easy.
The knee injury that sidelined Paul for a month and the Rockets’ dominance since his return prevented the pair of All-Star playmakers from getting any clutch experience as a duo until Saturday night. They certainly aced their first test, as the Rockets rallied from 14 points down at the start of the fourth quarter to pull off a 124-117 road victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. It was the first victory of Houston’s nine-game win streak that didn’t come by a double-digit margin.
“Everybody’s been talking about it, right? ‘What they gonna do? What they gonna do?'” Paul said with a smile of the scrutiny regarding how Houston might execute with two superstars accustomed to having the ball in clutch situations. “We’re still figuring it out. I think tonight we just showed a lot of grit.”
Houston’s headliners also showed a heckuva lot of skill down the stretch. Harden and Paul combined for 25 points and five assists in the fourth quarter, accounting for all but two of the Rockets’ 40 points in the frame, as Houston spread the floor with a small-ball lineup and let the stars carve up the Portland defense.
“Once we did that, we had shooters on the court, the lane was wide open,” said Harden, who finished with 48 points and single-handedly outscored the Trail Blazers 15-14 in the final 7:02. “Layup, layup, layup, 3-ball.”
The first clutch possession — using the NBA’s official definition as occurring in the final five minutes with the score within five points — was a Harden highlight. Dancing off the dribble, he made mismatched Portland power forward Noah Vonleh fall to the floor en route to an uncontested lefty layup.
James Harden puts the moves on Noah Vonleh and sinks an uncontested layup in the fourth quarter.
Paul drove for a layup the next possession, blowing by Portland point guard Damian Lillard, who had a spectacular offensive performance (35 points and nine made 3-pointers, which tied a franchise record) but got picked on repeatedly on the other end of the floor. Paul dished out dimes the next three trips: a feed to P.J. Tucker for a fast-break layup off a steal, a bullet to Trevor Ariza for a transition 3 that gave the Rockets the lead for good and a drop-off to Tucker for a layup after driving past Lillard.
It was Harden’s turn to attack Lillard the next trip, and it resulted in an and-1 lefty layup. He followed that by driving for yet another layup on a pick-and-roll, which made it seven straight possessions that the Rockets scored on in crunch time.
“Me and James was talking about how cool it was that I went a few times, he got to go a few times and got to play off each other like that,” said Paul, who finished with 26 points and seven assists.
“We have a scoring anomaly over here and just a teacher over there,” said Ariza, who along with Tucker keyed the Rockets’ switch-everything defensive strategy down the stretch. “Watching them two play with everything we were doing defensively was just amazing.”
How Houston’s stars would share the ball in crunch time was perhaps the only remaining question about the Harden and Paul pairing, at least of those that can be answered during the regular season. “A little adversity, we needed it,” Harden said after the Rockets won the previous eight games by an average margin of 20.3 points, in a streak that started with Paul’s return.
“We’ve been talking about that we needed to get tested,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We needed to have a fourth quarter. We needed to go in the last five minutes … But that’s enough! We did, and now we’ll work on it next month.”