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Monday NBA Roundup: James Harden's Scoring Crown Key to Rockets' Playoff Push

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2015

Brian Spurlock/USA Today

Call James Harden the "Iron Chef of Houston," because when he's cooking, the Houston Rockets (47-23) can't be stopped. 

In Monday night's 110-100 win over the Indiana Pacers, Harden ripped the Eastern Conference's fifth-best defense for 44 points (10-of-21 shooting; 21-of-22 from the free-throw line), seven assists, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks.  

According to the Rockets' official Twitter account, Harden now leads the league in 40-point performances: 

Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets

Harden with 41 now, retakes NBA-lead over Westbrook with 8 total games with 40+ points. (Westbrook: 7)

Nineteen of Harden's 44 came in the fourth quarter, and as the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen noted, that total alone made the rest of his teammates look like mere mortals: 

Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen

Harden had more pts in 4th quarter (19) than any other Rockets player had in the game. Had 44p, 7a. Rockets 15-1 when he scores 35 or more.

Harden's explosive outing was also historic in two ways, according to Feigen and the Rockets: 

Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets

Harden's 30 games with 30+ points is the most in a season for any Rocket since Moses Malone had 44 in 1981-82.

Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen

James Harden has tied Kevin Martin's franchise record for made free throws in a game without a miss. He's 18 of 18 from line.

In his pursuit of the NBA scoring title, Harden actually made more free throws (21) than the Pacers attempted as a team (19). Call it boring, call it systematic, call it aesthetically displeasing, but that process produces results.

Chef Beard, your thoughts?

NBA TV @NBATV

He's cooking again. 41 for @JHarden13 on NBA TV! http://t.co/0kbxnVMZtw

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Now fractional points back of Russell Westbrook for the top spot on the NBA's scoring leaderboard, Harden's ability to consistently cook up 5-star dishes has kept the depleted Rockets in prime position to capture home-court advantage when the first round of the playoffs rolls around. 

According to Feigen, "The Rockets on Saturday fell to 6-11 in games James Harden has not scored at least 20 points (including the game he missed)."

But when he scores 20 or more, the Rockets are 41-12, good for a winning percentage of .774. 

"We got to pick it up,” Corey Brewer said following Saturday's 117-102 loss to the Phoenix Suns, according to Feigen. "We can’t put it all on James. We can’t ask Dwight (Howard) to do a lot when he comes back right away. Our second unit, we have to keep doing what we do, come in, move the ball, get baskets." 

Houston will need more than Harden to make a deep postseason run, but as the regular season draws to a close, his brilliance may be enough to stabilize the team's quest for a top-three seed. 

As long as he's keeping in line with his season-long average of 10 trips to the charity stripe, Houston should be in good shape—artistic qualms from outsiders be damned. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Houston is now 28-5 when Harden attempts at least 10 freebies, which is comparatively bonkers.  

"So, if we’re going to talk about carrying a team by the scruff of its neck to the playoffs, let’s not just give credit to guys who are duking it out to barely make it—let’s give credence to the man who has put his team in contention for the No. 2 seed in spite of less help and more adversity," Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta wrote. 

With the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs on four- and three-game winning streaks, respectively, in pursuit of Houston's No. 3 seed, Harden is ready to set the table and prepare an unforgettable meal. 

Around the Association

More Moving and Shaking in the East

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

While Harden was busy picking the Pacers apart, the Boston Celtics took care of business, 110-91, against the Brooklyn Nets behind Evan Turner's second triple-double (19 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds) of the season. 

Following Indiana's sixth straight loss, here's how the bottom of the East stands at present:  

The Race for 6th, 7th and 8th (Through March 23)
TeamRecordGames BackStreak
6. Milwaukee Bucks34-3619.0L6
7. Miami Heat32-3720.5L1
8. Boston Celtics31-3922.0W1
9. Charlotte Hornets30-3922.5L1
10. Indiana Pacers30-4023.0L6
11. Brooklyn Nets29-4023.5L1
NBA.com

As Celtics Blog's Kevin O'Connor explained, the next three days will help provide a bit more clarity as that group of teams gets set to square off in consecutive contests: 

Kevin O'Connor @KevinOConnorNBA

MIA-MIL on Tue, BOS-MIA & CHA-BKN on Wed, MIL-IND on Thu. The playoff bubble will look much different by the weekend. http://t.co/Ja9qsHF1Jg

On the bright side for Brooklyn, at least Deron Williams (10 points, 2-of-6 shooting) still has a wicked crossover:  

The Butler's Back

Jimmy Butler (elbow) returned from a three-week absence, and in typical Chicago Bulls fashion, head coach Tom Thibodeau didn't ease him back into action. Butler played a game-high 40 minutes, totaling 19 points (6-of-20 shooting) and nine rebounds in the Bulls' 98-86 win over the Charlotte Hornets.

According to Bulls Radio's Jeff Mangurten, Chicago officially clinched a playoff spot with the victory:

Jeff Mangurten @JeffGurt

The Bulls have clinched a playoff spot for the 7th straight year, the second longest run in franchise history (14 - 1985-98).

Although it was nice to see Butler back roaming around on the wing, rookie Nikola Mirotic overshadowed the 25-year-old's return by amassing 28 points (10-of-19 shooting), eight rebounds and a posterization of Hornets big man Jason Maxiell: 

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mirotic has been the league's most prolific fourth-quarter scorer this month:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Nikola Mirotic with 14 more 4th-quarter points tonight Most PPG In 4th Quarter, Since March 1 Mirotic 9.5, LeBron 8.5, Westbrook 8.3

So much for Andrew Wiggins running away with Rookie of the Year honors.

Memphis Joins the Postseason Party

Like the Bulls, the Memphis Grizzlies punched their ticket to the playoffs Monday night with a 103-82 drubbing of the New York Knicks. 

According to Grizzlies PR's Ross Wooden, Memphis has been one of the West's most consistent teams this decade: 

Ross Wooden @RossWooden

The @memgrizz clinch 5th straight postseason berth. Only the #Grizzlies, #Spurs and #Thunder have made last 4 West Playoffs.

However, ESPN Stats & Info pointed out that sustained success is a departure from the franchise's woeful ways of the past:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Grizzlies: 3rd straight 50-win season Before this run, the franchise won 50 games just once in its first 17 seasons of existence.

Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol teamed up to run roughshod over the Knicks' less muscular frontcourt, scoring 23 and 21 points, respectively. Randolph also topped all Memphis players with five assists, marking the fifth time this season (and fourth time this month) he's crossed that distributive threshold. 

LaVine Shines Late 

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 23: Zach LaVine #8 of the Minnesota Timberwolves takes a shot against the Utah Jazz on March 23, 2015 at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz were without Gordon Hayward (shoulder), and the lack of a reliable off-the-dribble scorer doomed the offensively inept Utah Jazz in a 106-104 overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Rookie Zach LaVine rose to the occasion, scoring a game-high 27 points while hitting a career-high five threes, including a gutsy pull-up attempt to tie things at 96 with under 15 seconds to play in regulation: 

Wiggins stepped up with 22 points of his own, just the third time this month that he's reached the 20-point plateau.

More importantly, Minnesota's win allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to move within a game of the NBA's second-worst record.

Washington Experiences Third Quarter of Doom

Those poor Washington Wizards. Trailing by just three points at halftime, they thought they stood a chance against the Golden State Warriors. 

Alas, the competitive spirit died in the third quarter, when Golden State posted a 29-8 advantage and held Washington to a single made field goal. ESPN Stats & Info noted Washington's third-quarter performance:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Wizards finally make a shot ... they missed their first 15 of the 3rd quarter http://t.co/8S1cm03r4n

Klay Thompson (ankle) returned from a three-game absence and chipped in eight points, while Stephen Curry ran the show behind tallies of 24 points, six assists and five rebounds. The Warriors were plus-30 during his 28 minutes on the floor and ran away with the win, 107-76.

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