James Harden finished the night with a game-high 41 points as the Houston Rockets defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-109 on Christmas Day.
Final: Rockets 113, Thunder 109
Harden's 41-point performance was the 24th in league history on Christmas and the second most of any active player. Kevin Durant dropped 44 points as a member of the Thunder in a win over the Denver Nuggets in 2010.
Here are four takeaways from the Rockets' win:
Since the beginning of the month, James Harden elevated his game back to MVP status…as if he could get any better.
Coming into the Christmas Day clash with the Thunder, Harden was averaging 34.2 points,7.8 assists on 46% shooting from the field in the month of December. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that James Harden will probably be your Western Conference player of the month. On Tuesday, Harden finished with a game-high 41 points. It was the seventh straight time he went for at least 30 points, which is a career-high. It also tied Billy Cunningham, Tracy McGrady and Brandon Roy for the 16th highest scoring game on Christmas Day in NBA history - he was a missed three-pointer from cracking the top ten.
The team is also following Harden's lead as they've now won 7 of their last eight games and for the first time this season are three games above .500. In January they'll go the entire month without playing a single back-to-back and can expect Chris Paul 's return to the lineup before long. The Western Conference Finals hangover seems to be finally wearing off for Harden and his team, and with the West so close don't be surprised if they're back in the top four by all-star break.
🚀 @JHarden13 (41 PTS, 6 REB, 7 AST) records his 7th straight game with 30+ points as the @HoustonRockets pick up the #NBAXmas win vs. OKC! #Rockets pic.twitter.com/6CZTfK6qrw- NBA (@NBA) December 25, 2018
Clint Capela has quietly put up career-high numbers since signing the big contract to stay with Houston in the off-season. Capela was a major key to the Rockets' success and his 17.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game have been extremely valuable this year. The only problem is they haven't been winning for him to reap the praise.
On Wednesday Capela finished with 16 points and a game-high 23 rebounds - a Rockets' rebounding record on Christmas Day surpassing Dwight Howard's mark of 20 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2013.
Capela's energy and ability to roll with purpose opened up opportunities for Harden all game long. If they didn't pay attention to Capela he would be in for an easy dunk, if they paid him too much mind Harden would break them down for an open look. Losing Capela this offseason would've been crippling for the Rockets and his play so far is reminding everyone he's worth every penny.
Thunder's shooting woes
The Thunder are the ultimate body blow team in the NBA. No team likely plays harder defensively. They're at or near the top of the league in defence, deflections and steals. They crash the offensive glass, force you to protect the paint and can get out and run with the best teams in the league. Simply put they're annoying to play against because nothing you get against them comes easy. You're either going to hit tough shots or succumb to their suffocating style of play. On Wednesday, the Rockets hit tough shots and exposed the biggest problem the Thunder have - which may be the only thing holding them back from winning a championship - they simply don't have enough shooting.
Oklahoma City finished the game with 64 points in the paint, but once the Rockets decided not to let them pound it inside, the points dried up quickly and OKC didn't have another answer. The Thunder shot 9-for-30 from long range, consistent with their season ranking of 28th in three-point percentage. They also rank 28th league-wide in free-throw percentage and in games that are within five points or less - with a 6-12 record after Wednesday's loss.
The Thunder have to find a way to shoot the ball better, because their defensive strength won't matter if they can't score.
Austin Rivers' debut
Austin Rivers made his Rockets' debut on Wednesday and his first task in Houston was to guard Russell Westbrook - welcome to Houston, Austin!
Although Rivers finished the game with five fouls, he earned a bit of trust from his teammates and coaching staff knocking down two big three in the fourth quarter which took some pressure off Harden. Rivers finished with 10 points, shooting 2-for-3 from three-point range.
The 26-year-old put up career numbers last season with the Clippers and even though things didn't quite pan out for him in Washington, he's still a good pick up for what Houston tries to do. People will be surprised with how well Rivers fits in in Houston by season's end.