HOUSTON — David Fizdale let out a sigh of disgust when he was asked if he was pleased with his New York Knicks holding James Harden to 26 points.
Well, not quite.
“No, he toyed with us,” the Knicks coach said after a 120-96 loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday night. “He did an MVP (performance) and toyed with us. He scored when he wanted to score and passed when he wanted to pass. But that’s what greatness does to young players.”
Harden had a relatively quiet night, adding eight assists and eight rebounds to go along with his 26 points in just 29 minutes. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
For Harden, it wasn’t nearly as spectacular as his last game against the Knicks when he tied a career high by scoring 61 points in a 114-110 win at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 23. Harden entered Friday averaging 43 points per game in his last three games against New York.
With the game largely in hand early, it marked just the sixth time this season Harden played less than 30 minutes. He entered Friday night second in the league with 37.0 minutes per game. He’s leading the league with 36.2 points per game.
“We’re building very, very good habits no matter who we play,” Harden said. “That’s our mindset, that’s what we preach, and that’s what we’ve been talking about. So it was a great job by the guys going out there, playing four quarters like it was any other team.”
Chris Paul and Clint Capela both had double-doubles for Houston, with Paul getting 11 points and 10 assists and Capela adding 12 points and 15 rebounds. The Rockets are 18-0 this season when Paul has 10 or more assists.
With Knicks point guard Emmanuel Mudiay sidelined with a sore left shoulder, Mario Hezonja started, posting 16 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists. Hezonja’s triple-double was the first for the Knicks since Jan. 11, 2018, when Jarrett Jack had one against Atlanta.
“He did a great job, he organized us, he called the right stuff, he attacked when he needed to attack and did an excellent job on the glass,” Fizdale said.
Henry Ellenson also had 16 points off the bench for the Knicks, who lost their ninth straight on the road. Kevin Knox added 13 and Mitchell Robinson had 12.
Seven Rockets scored in double figures: Eric Gordon and Kenneth Faried each had 13, P.J. Tucker added 11, and Iman Shumpert 10. The Rockets have won 16 of their past 19 games in which Tucker has scored in double figures.
With Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni out with a stomach flu, assistant Jeff Bzdelik served as head coach for the game.
“We have a great group of veteran guys that understand what’s at stake here,” Bzdelik said. “Continuing to build our championship habits because the playoffs are going to be starting here in seven or eight days, so we need to make sure we continue to get better. It’s understood that every game is a playoff-implication game, and this was a very important win tonight for us.”
The Rockets held the Knicks to just 16 points in the first quarter, a season low for opponents’ first-quarter scoring against Houston. The Rockets led 32-16 after the first quarter and held a 72-43 lead at halftime.
Harden highlighted how critical it is for Houston to maintain an intensity on defense.
“It’s very important and we did that,” Harden said. “No matter who checked in the game, we were focused and locked in.”
Winning for the seventh time in their last eight games, the Rockets swept the season series against the Knicks for the 12th time in the past 14 seasons. The Knicks have lost eight of their last nine games overall.
With the victory, Houston (52-28) briefly pulled within a game of Denver for the second seed in the Western Conference playoff standings. Denver hosted Portland on Friday night. The Rockets have two games remaining in the regular season as they host Phoenix on Sunday and visit Oklahoma City on Tuesday.
When asked if he pays close attention to the Western Conference playoff standings, Paul shook his head.
“Just hooping and worrying about us,” Paul said. “We’re one of the teams that, every night, as long as we play the way we’re capable of, we should win.”
Knicks: Were also without Kadeem Allen (concussion), Isaiah Hicks (sore left hip), Dennis Smith Jr. (sore lower back), Allonzo Trier (strained left calf) and Noah Vonleh (sprained right ankle). DeAndre Jordan did not play for a fourth straight game (coach’s decision).
Rockets: Houston tied a season-low with just six turnovers . The Rockets improved to 15-2 when holding opponents below 100 points. … C Nene (coach’s decision) was the only player who did not enter the game for Houston.
Despite holding a 29-point lead with less than five minutes remaining, Bzdelik called timeout for Houston.
“We had a couple of very poor defensive possessions and we needed to refocus, lock in and understand that every possession matters,” Bzdelik said. “Habits are very important.”
Houston-native Damyean Dotson was held to 3-for-14 shooting, including just 1-for-8 from the 3-point line and totaled seven points in 28 minutes in his homecoming game.
Knicks: Host the Wizards on Sunday.
Rockets: Host the Suns on Sunday.