Rockets 111, Spurs 105

March 23, 2019

HOUSTON — Consider Spurs coach Gregg Popovich among the legions in the NBA stumped by the question.How do you make Houston guard James Harden seem mortal?“You think I know?” Popovich said. “If anybody knew, they would have already done it. Nobody can do it.”The Spurs certainly could not Friday at the Toyota Center.Turning in an unprecedented performance against a Popovich-coached team, Harden poured in 61 points — including 13 in a row in the fourth quarter — as the Rockets dealt the Spurs a 111-105 defeat.Harden’s total matched his own Rockets franchise record, and put another stamp on his bid to repeat as MVP.It was his eighth game this season with at least 50 points, and second in a row after his 57-point eruption in an overtime loss at Memphis two nights earlier.Harden did not need extra time to put up his numbers Wednesday. The Rockets, meanwhile, needed everything Harden could muster after squandering a 19-point lead in the second half.“I was just in attack mode all night,” Harden said.Bryn Forbes scored 20 points and Derrick White had 18 for the Spurs, who did not get standout games from DeMar DeRozan (16 points) or LaMarcus Aldridge (10).Harden’s numbers, meanwhile, were eye-popping: He took 34 shots and made 19, hit 9 of 13 3-pointers, and made 14 of 17 free throws.He finished with more points than any player had scored against the Spurs during the Popovich era, surpassing the 57 Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving notched in a double-overtime win in March 2015.By the end of the first quarter, Harden already had put in more work than most All-Stars do all day.He had 27 points — to the Spurs’ 24 — and had made 7 of 10 shots, 3 of 4 3-pointers and 10 of 12 free throws.It was the second-most points scored by a Rockets player in a single quarter, trailing only the 30 Vernon Maxwell put on Cleveland in 1991.It was the most points an opponent had scored in a quarter against the Spurs in 22 seasons under Popovich.Earlier this season, Harden topped 30 points in an astounding 32 consecutive games, a streak surpassed in NBA history by only one man: Wilt Chamberlain.A quarter into Friday’s game, Harden was on pace to snap Chamberlain’s most hallowed record: The 100-point game.The Spurs did well to climb out of the hole Harden dug for them.They did not take their first lead of the game until Patty Mills’ reverse layup with 10:47 to play.The lead swung back and forth from there.The Spurs (42-31) were ahead by six with 4:47 to go. Then Harden went from white-hot to supernova.He buried three consecutive 3-pointers, wiggled for an impossible bank shot over White, and scooted for a layup.By the time Harden was finished, so were the Spurs. Houston led 107-102 with 1:25 left.Harden’s outburst came in the context of a Western Conference playoff race that stands to become cloudier before it becomes clearer.Had the postseason began before Friday’s game, the Spurs and Rockets would have met in the first round as the sixth and third seeds.The day dawned with the four teams in the five-through-eight holes — Oklahoma City, the Spurs, Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers — tied at 42-30.By night’s end, the Spurs had slipped to eighth.“It’s crunch time now,” Forbes said. “If you do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll get the outcome you want. If you don’t, you’ve got to deal with whatever happens.”Houston forward P.J. Tucker admitted to taking occasional peeks at the logjammed standings.“You get this close, you try to see who you may play, where you may end up,” Tucker said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. If we win games, we’ll be in a position where we’ll be happy.”Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said even at this late date, it was too early to treat Friday’s game as a potential playoff preview.“Nothing will linger,” D’Antoni said. “It’s just, we’re trying to get up into third, and I’m sure they’re trying to get as high as they can. There’s still too many games to go.”That is still plenty of time for Harden to continue building his case for another MVP award.It has gotten to the point where D’Antoni keeps expecting such nightly greatness from Harden.Harden keeps delivering.“James has been good against every kind of defense, any way you can guard him,” D’Antoni said. “He’s gotten 50 against every different type of defense you can see.”After watching Harden top 60 on Friday, Popovich was in no position to counter. He left with as many answers for Harden as he came with.None.“He’s having another MVP season,” Popovich said. “He’s fantastic.”jmcdonald@express-news.net