How do you stop the sprinting, slashing and swaggering Houston Rockets? Step in front of them, of course.
The Heat’s defense drew two critical charges in the final minute of Wednesday’s 114-108 victory against Houston to hold off a furious comeback and extend Miami’s dominance against Western Conference foes.
The Heat (32-14 overall) is now 16-5 in games against teams from the Western Conference. Last season, the Heat won just 11 games against the West, albeit during a lockout-shortened schedule.
Miami led by 10 points midway through the period at AmericanAirlines Arena but, led by James Harden, the Rockets charged within a point with less than a minute left. The Heat led 109-106 with 46.3 seconds remaining when Harden sliced through the lane and slammed into Mario Chalmers, who planted his feet in the paint moments before Harden could get up a shot.
Harden was called for a charge and the Rockets never got any closer.
“Houston is one of the toughest teams to guard in the league,” said Dwyane Wade, who finished with 31 points.
A traveling call against LeBron James gave the Rockets a second chance at the lead on their next possession but this time Udonis Haslem stepped in front of James Anderson to force the turnover. James made 1 of 2 free throws to give the Heat a four-point lead before Wade blocked Harden’s three-point attempt with 11.3 seconds remaining to end the suspense.
“It was good to see us close out the game with some defensive stops,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “[Houston] is so aggressive. You have to put your body in front of them. Those were big in the fourth quarter. We also had a couple of blocks to save some possessions.”
The Rockets (27-24) scored 140 points on Tuesday night in its blowout victory over the Warriors and tied an NBA record for three-pointers in a game (23).
With that backdrop, the Rockets strutted into AmericanAirlines Arena hoping to earn back some respect after its meek home effort in crunch time against the Heat at the beginning of the season.
Houston’s bearded one made things interesting. Harden and his bushy facial outcrop shredded the Heat’s defense in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 points in the period. He couldn’t complete the comeback, but Harden set the single-game scoring mark against the Heat this season with 36 points. He was 10 of 16 from the field, 4 of 7 from three-point range and 12 of 13 from the free-throw line.
“We held them to 108?” Spoelstra asked with surprise after the game. “That team can score.”
Harden drilled a three-pointer on a defensive break down by the Heat to cut the Heat’s lead to 104-98. Jeremy Lin made it a five-point game with a pair of free throws on Houston’s next possession. A mistake by Chalmers then guaranteed an exciting finish.
Chalmers fouled Harden in the act of shooting a three-pointer with 2:29 left and Harden made all three attempts, giving the Heat a tenuous one-possession game. Shane Battier answered with a three-pointer but Harden then reeled off five consecutive points, including another three-pointer with 1:11 left.
“Even when we had a chance to get a double-digit lead in the second half they came right back,” Spoelstra said.
James scored 32 points, going 11 of 18 from the field. He began the game 3 of 3, which briefly gave him an amazing run of 20 of 21 from the field dating back to the fourth quarter of the Heat’s victory against the Rockets.
Unlike Tuesday’s victory against the Bobcats, James did his damage from the outside against the Rockets. He was 3 of 6 from three-point range to go along with six rebounds and five assists. James was also 7 of 10 from the free-throw line.
“He reads the game, whatever’s needed,” Spoelstra said. “The shots that were open for the jumpers and the threes. LeBron was aware of that and he made them play.”