James Harden Drops 50 as Rockets Beat LeBron James, Lakers 126-111

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2018

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) reacts after dunking the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets extended their winning streak to two Thursday with a 126-111 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center.

James Harden and the Rockets improved to 13-14 overall after going just 3-7 in their previous 10 games, while the Lakers fell to 17-11 and 6-2 in their last eight. Houston has looked nothing like the team that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in last season's Western Conference Finals but took a step in the right direction with a win over a contender.

Harden was dominant with a triple-double of 50 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds and went into takeover mode in the fourth quarter to clinch the victory. Chris Paul added 14 points and nine dimes, while Clint Capela notched a double-double (16 points and 14 boards).

LeBron James (29 points) and Kyle Kuzma (24 points) spearheaded the Lakers' efforts but didn't have enough to counter the defending MVP.

          

Rockets' Struggles Without Ariza Further Proof Lakers Should Trade for Him

The Lakers appear on their way to a playoff spot for the first time since 2012-13, but they are reportedly exploring ways to improve.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com, the Purple and Gold "are engaged in talks" with the Phoenix Suns regarding the availability of forward Trevor Ariza. Los Angeles has to look no further than Thursday's opponent to see the type of impact Ariza can have on a contender.

Last season's Rockets won an NBA-best 65 games and held a 3-2 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before Paul suffered a hamstring injury. Ariza was a critical glue guy on that team but is playing for the Suns this season.

Houston has already almost matched its 17 losses from 2017-18 without him and had a worse record than everyone in the Western Conference but the Suns entering play Thursday.

Ariza's absence isn't the sole reason for the steep drop-off, but the Rockets miss his presence. He was a versatile playmaker at 6'8" who gave head coach Mike D'Antoni the option to unleash small-ball lineups or go big.

That length helped him shoot over defenders and hit 36.8 percent of his three-pointers on the way to 11.7 points per night. Ariza's ability to close out on jump shooters and bolster Houston's perimeter defense was also critical. Opponents shot 7.9 percent worse from deep than their normal averages when he guarded them last season, per NBA.com.

The Rockets were seventh in the league in defensive rating with him but are an ugly 27th this year, per NBA.com.

Ariza also thrived alongside Harden and Paul and consistently hit open looks from the outside when defenders collapsed on the two All-Stars. It's easy to envision he'd do the same for the Lakers when James attacks the lane.

Trading for Ariza would improve Los Angeles' perimeter approach on both ends and give a team that has a number of important young pieces in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kuzma and Josh Hart a veteran presence. He has 102 playoff games on his resume and has plenty of experience playing under some of the brightest spotlights.

Ariza helped lead the Rockets to the doorstep of last season's NBA Finals and could do the same for the 2018-19 Lakers.

           

CP3's Scoring Clearest Path to Championship Contention for Rockets

Paul has always been a facilitator, and he is a future Hall of Famer in large part because of his ability to find teammates with head-turning passes.

However, this iteration of the Rockets needs him to be a more consistent secondary scorer next to Harden.

Houston was 6-2 when Paul scored 20 or more points entering Thursday's contest, which is a pace that would put it among the league's best. It was an ugly 6-12 in all other games, though.

Paul was averaging 16.4 points per night before the Lakers matchup, which would be his second-lowest mark since he was a rookie in 2005-06 and his lowest since he was a member of the New Orleans Hornets.

There is no doubt Harden is the Rockets' go-to scorer, and he demonstrated the many ways he can put the ball in the basket with a four-point play on a perimeter step-back and a massive dunk over JaVale McGee after he blew past Ball. He will be an MVP candidate yet again if the Rockets return to championship contention.

They won't do that if he's carrying the vast majority of the scoring load by himself every night.

The record bears out how much more dangerous Houston is when Paul is attacking the basket and hitting from the perimeter. He helped build a six-point halftime advantage with 12 points and three triples as the Lakers couldn't account for the shooting from both ball-handling guards, but Los Angeles battled back to take the lead for stretches when Paul scored just two points in the third quarter.

Marquee players who take over in crunch time win championships, and Houston will have to deal with plenty in the Western Conference between the five 2018 All-Stars on the Warriors, James on the Lakers and Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the Oklahoma City Thunder, among others.

Paul fits the bill, and Houston can have the best two players on the floor against plenty of teams if he further asserts himself as a scorer.

           

What's Next?

Both teams are on the road Saturday with the Rockets at the Memphis Grizzlies and the Lakers at the Charlotte Hornets.

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