Thunder 122, Rockets 104
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)
James Harden let loose his first 3-pointer after two weeks away, then bounced a couple times as the ball sailed toward the basket.
When the ball splashed down, the Oklahoma City Thunder's missing piece had returned with a flourish to lead the way in a dominating win with implications on the Western Conference playoff race.
Harden returned from an injury to supplement Kevin Durant's 25 points with 23 of his own, and the Thunder ended a string of futility against the Houston Rockets with a 122-104 victory on Wednesday night.
``I just wanted to come out and get my swag back like it was before I left,'' said Harden, who had his fourth 20-point game of the season and his first since Dec. 7.
The Thunder got out to a sizzling start and opened a 23-point lead within the first 14 minutes. Their lead was never in jeopardy against a Houston team desperately needing a late charge to make the playoffs.
Instead, Oklahoma City used its second-best shooting performance of the season to take a big step toward solidifying its spot in the postseason. In moving to 43-27, the Thunder matched their win total from the past two seasons combined.
Luis Scola scored 25 and Trevor Ariza added 20 points for Houston, which fell seven games behind Oklahoma City and 5 1/2 behind eighth-place Portland in the Western Conference with a dozen games left.
``We've just got to go play,'' Rockets reserve Kyle Lowry said. ``We've got to finish strong and see what happens.''
Oklahoma City snapped a 13-game losing streak against Houston that had been the Rockets' longest against any opponent in franchise history. Houston's last loss in the series came on April 4, 2006, in Seattle.
The return of Harden provided a huge boost for the Thunder, who went 3-3 while their top-scoring bench player was out with a strained right hamstring and dropped into the seventh spot in the West.
``James brings a dynamic to our team,'' Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. ``He's a playmaker. He scores, he can play off the ball, he can play on the ball and he makes plays for our guys.''
Harden poured in 13 points in his first 5 minutes off the bench, including the final eight points in a 14-0 surge by the Thunder that spanned the break between the first and second quarters. Harden converted a fast-break layup and then added back-to-back 3-pointers and a pair of free throws.
His 3-pointer a few moments later completed his 4-for-4 start and put Oklahoma City up 50-27 with 10:18 left before halftime.
``He came in and provided a big-time spark for us on the offensive end and he was defending also,'' fellow reserve Eric Maynor said. ``It was good to have him back.''
Harden was hurt in a win against New Orleans on March 10 and had to sit out for the first time in his rookie season.
``It was tough because I didn't touch a ball for a few days,'' said Harden, who was expected to miss two to four weeks and returned on the early end of that window. ``It was tough having to just do rehab and just sticking with the program. These last few days, I've been shooting the ball well.
``I think that taking the time off really helped me just get my form ready and my shot really ready.''
The Thunder made 25 of their first 30 shots, for an 83 percent conversion rate, and led by as many as 24 during their highest-scoring half of the season. Houston closed back within 13 following a 16-5 response and trailed 74-57 at halftime, but never got closer than 15 in the second half.
While Oklahoma City had its bench replenished, the Rockets were playing without reserves Shane Battier, Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries, and had to bring in reinforcements from the NBA Development League by calling up Jermaine Taylor and signing Mike Harris for the rest of the season.
Lowry had 13 of his 15 points in the first half, but the rest of Houston's depleted bench did little to offset Harden's spectacular return on a night that saw Oklahoma City score its second-most points this season and make a season-best 47 field goals on 59 percent shooting.
``(Harden) came into the game on fire. When a guy comes in and gives you 20-something points off the bench and he hits three straight 3s, it's kind of tough to stop that,'' Lowry said. ``He was fresh. He was hurt, came back and he was on fire.''
NOTES: Thunder G Russell Westbrook has planned a celebrity bowling tournament for Saturday night, featuring his Thunder teammates along with Reggie Wayne and Cato June from the Indianapolis Colts. The event will benefit the Oklahoma City Urban Youth Scholarship Fund. ... Oklahoma City took a 94-93 lead in the all-time series. ... Only five days earlier, the Thunder set what had been their highest-scoring half of the season with 71 first-half points against Toronto.