HOUSTON — After fighting through a terrible chest cold for the last few days, James Harden finally felt like himself on Sunday night.
“I can finally breathe,” Harden said.
Harden scored 28 points and Eric Gordon added 22 as the Rockets never trailed and used hot 3-point shooting to pull away in the third quarter.
“I think our energy was just up no matter what,” Harden said. “They went on runs. They cut the deficit down … but no matter, what we just stayed with it.”
Game 5 is Tuesday night in San Antonio.
Jonathon Simmons had 17 points for the Spurs, and Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge added 16 apiece.
Houston made 22 3-pointers in a blowout win in Game 1, but had struggled from long-range in its two losses. The Rockets’ 3-point shooting, a hallmark of their success in the regular season, got back on track Sunday when they made 19 of 43, led by six from Gordon.
The Rockets led by 15 entering the fourth quarter and immediately padded the lead when Gordon made a 3-pointer to open the period. Simmons made a 3 on the other end before Gordon struck again with his sixth 3-pointer to leave the Rockets up 97-79.
The Spurs were unable to cut into the lead after that and both teams had mostly backups on the court by the midpoint of the period with the game out of hand.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich pointed to one big reason to explain why his team struggled Sunday night.
“Our bible begins with transition defence, and if it’s not there, then we’re just not ready to go,” he said. “If you had seen clips of our transition D (Sunday), you would trade all the players and fire me by the end of the game. It was that bad.”
Houston’s offence bounced back in a big way after the team had been held to below 100 points in each of the last two games after failing to reach the mark only five times in the regular season.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni was impressed with how his team corrected the mistakes it made in the last two games in this one.
“This is a big stage they did it on,” he said. “We have a lot of work left, but there’s no reason why we can’t go down to San Antonio and repeat the performance.”
The offence was helped by a more balanced scoring attack with seven players scoring in double figures after only three Rockets scored more than 10 points in Game 3. Harden had 12 assists after managing just five in the last game and added five rebounds.
The Rockets were up by five early in the third quarter before using an 8-2 run to make it 70-59 with about eight minutes left in the quarter.
Harden was shaken up soon after that when he banged his left knee into Patty Mills as he attempted to drive to the basket. He fell to the court grabbing his knee as Houston called a timeout and trainers rushed to him. But there was no need for alarm, as he shook off the injury and returned after the timeout to make a 3-pointer seconds later.
It was the first of three straight 3-pointers for the Rockets in a 9-2 run that made it 79-61 midway through the quarter.
San Antonio scored the next eight points, with six from Aldridge, to cut it to 79-69 with 3 1/2 minutes left in the third.
Houston still had a 10-point lead late in the quarter before closing out the third with an 8-3 run that pushed it to 91-76 entering the fourth. Ryan Anderson wrapped up the scoring in that quarter with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Spurs: Rookie Dejounte Murray had eight points in his second game in the starting lineup since Tony Parker suffered a season-ending leg injury in Game 3. … Pau Gasol had eight points and seven rebounds. … Danny Green finished with just 3 points.
Rockets: Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon sat courtside. … Nene was pulled his left groin in the first quarter and didn’t return. … Trevor Ariza had 16 points for his second straight game with double figures.
Houston’s Patrick Beverley played with a heavy heart after learning just before the game that his grandfather Rheese Morris had passed away. Beverley, who finished with 10 points and six assists, wept after the game as he spoke about what Morris meant to him.
“He was there as long as I can remember,” Beverley said wiping his tears away on the shoulder of his shirt. “He was at every single game that he could possibly make it to. It’s a tough one for me.”
THEY SAID IT
Ariza on Houston’s role players stepping up on Sunday night: “In our offence, we need everybody to be aggressive. That’s what we have to do if we want to win this series.”
After Game 5 in San Antonio on Tuesday, the series shifts back to Houston for Game 6 on Thursday night.