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James Harden's Dominance Propels Rockets Past Kawhi Leonard, Raptors

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorMarch 6, 2019

TORONTO, CANADA - MARCH 5: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Toronto Raptors on March 5, 2019 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Mark Blinch/Getty Images

James Harden scored 19 of his 35 points in the final 7:08 as the Houston Rockets beat the Toronto Raptors 107-95 on Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Kawhi Leonard had 26 points for the 46-19 Raps, who have lost three of their last five games. Pascal Siakam (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Serge Ibaka (10 points, 15 boards) both finished with double-doubles. Ibaka also blocked five shots.

Clint Capela grabbed 15 rebounds for the 39-25 Rockets, who have won six straight. Gerald Green dropped 18 points off the bench.

     

Don't Count Out Houston Rockets for West's No. 2 Seed

All of the sudden, a No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs seems like a feasible possibility for Houston.

The Rockets rose to a third-place tie in the West on Tuesday with the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder both losing. The Rockets are only looking up at the Golden State Warriors (five games ahead) and the Denver Nuggets (3.5 games ahead).

The Rockets are in that position even though three of their top four scorers have missed a combined 51 games. Chris Paul was out for 23, and Eric Gordon and Clint Capela sat 13 and 15, respectively.

All four of them are back on the court and healthy, which has been a rarity this year. As a result, Houston is now firing on all cylinders.

If the Rockets stay hot down the stretch, they can at least catch the Nuggets. Denver has lost three straight games to fall to 42-21, and it still has two road games left against the conference-leading Warriors. The Nuggets also have three more road contests than home games down the stretch, and eight of those 11 road games are against teams who are sixth or better in their respective conferences.

Houston is one of those teams. Not only would the Rockets earn a game over the Nuggets in the standings with a home win, but they would also clinch the tiebreaker over Denver in any potential playoff-positioning scenario.

FiveThirtyEight now projects Houston to finish at 52-30, one game behind Denver. Even if the Rockets aren't able to jump the Nuggets, they now look like the front-runners to earn the No. 3 seed and thereby avoid the Warriors until the conference finals.

               

Raptors Are Still the East's Most Dangerous Team

The Raptors are in the midst of a small rut, having lost their last two games. However, a pair of matchups don't tell the story of an entire season.

The Raps should be considered the East's most dangerous team come playoff time, one that could potentially knock off the defending champion Warriors in the NBA Finals should they both get that far.

Toronto is only one of three teams to have 19 or fewer losses despite injuries and designated days of rest for their two All-Stars, Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Leonard has been out for 18 games, and Lowry has sat for 12. Point guard Fred VanVleet has been out with a thumb injury for 14 and counting.

The Raptors are also only one of two NBA teams to rank in the top seven in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per ESPN.com, and that's largely without the services of key midseason additions Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin.

Toronto has four main contenders for the Eastern crown: the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers and Celtics look least likely to make runs to the NBA Finals. Indiana has fought hard since leading scorer Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending quad injury on Jan. 23, but the Pacers have gone a so-so 10-8 since. Boston can't get out of its own way lately, with losses in five of its last seven.

The Bucks and 76ers are the toughest challengers to the Raptors' Eastern Conference supremacy. Milwaukee, which has the league's best record at 48-16, is among the top three in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The 76ers have the deadliest starting lineup in the league outside Golden State with the trade-deadline acquisition of Tobias Harris. The team is 7-3 since he arrived despite All-Star center Joel Embiid missing six of those games.

But neither of those teams can compete with the Raptors' depth.

Toronto now has a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player in Gasol coming off the bench. He's averaging 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds this season between his time with Toronto and the Memphis Grizzlies.

The addition of Lin, who is averaging 10.3 points on 44.9 percent shooting, gives the Raptors a solid backcourt scorer. When VanVleet returns, those two should be the best pair of guards in any team's second unit.

Toronto could realistically go 11 deep in the playoffs when VanVleet gets back, which is a luxury the Bucks and 76ers can't match. While those two squads each boast terrific starting lineups, reserves often swing playoff games or series with unexpectedly crucial performances.

That's the Raptors' primary edge over their main two competitors, and it's what makes them the East's most dangerous team come playoff time.

                    

What's Next?

Both teams play Friday. Toronto will visit the New Orleans Pelicans, while Houston will host the 76ers.  

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