HOUSTON -- Before the Rockets summoned the defensive moxie necessary to siphon off the paint, guard James Harden undergirded their offense with his usual blend of scoring and facilitating, doing the latter with such unbridled enthusiasm that it warranted special consideration.
Harden scored a game-high 26 points, but it was his 14 assists that were particularly noteworthy. He recorded eight assists to complement his 17 points prior to intermission, seemingly doing everything the Rockets (26-25) needed to keep the Heat at bay until their defense got going. Managing dual roles isn't unusual for Harden, but it's striking still.
"He plays the game beautifully," Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "His skillset, I think, is underappreciated by a lot of people. People see the scoring, scoring, scoring, but they don't see the plays that he makes for his teammates. They don't see the passes that he makes time and time again, how he creates for his teammates.
"He's one of the guys who's in a rare group in our league who can do whatever the game calls upon that night. He's one of the few guys that can do it, and he does it well."
With centers Dwight Howard (suspension) and Clint Capela (thigh contusion) unavailable, forward Josh Smith filled the void in the middle and finished with a season-high 19 points. Enigmatic forward Terrence Jones added 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench to help flesh out the depleted big-man rotation while reserve guard Marcus Thornton scored 18 points in 22 minutes, including hitting 4 of 7 3-pointers.
All five Miami (27-22) starters scored in double figures. Guards Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic had 16 and 14 points, respectively. The starting frontline of Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire combined for 44 points and 25 rebounds. Rookie forward Justise Winslow, making his professional debut in his hometown, had 11 points, eight boards and three steals as Miami had its four-game winning streak snapped.
"They had the game they wanted," Wade said. "Get out and get some easy transition and shoot 3s. That's their game."
Miami led by as many as eight points in the first quarter before Thornton, Harden and forward Corey Brewer paced a frenetic close to the period. Thornton opened the surge with a 3 and added another one with 11.6 seconds left to knot the game at 31-31 entering the second.
Wade and Deng scored in transition following consecutive Houston turnovers late in the second quarter before Harden keyed a 13-0 blitz bridging the halves, delivering a step-back jumper and then a 3 over Winslow with 0.6 seconds left in the second for a 60-55 halftime lead.
"We allowed them to really run out and play the game in transition," Bosh said. "They shot the ball well. We talked about it before the game and we had a lot of turnovers (17)."
Houston scored the opening eight points in the third quarter to seize control for good, with Smith adding two 3-pointers during a blitz that extend the lead to 71-57. Harden had 11 points and four assists in the third alone, his trey with 30.7 seconds left stifling the last Miami run.
The Heat shot just 24 of 64 (37.5 percent) following a breakout first quarter and finished with 46 points in the paint after netting 22 in the opening period. While things slowed for Miami offensively there was no slowing Harden, whose blend of passing and scoring overwhelmed.
"When guys are making shots, guys are getting in rhythm and getting comfortable then it's easier for me," Harden said of producing 14 assists for a third time in his career. "Tonight was a really good example of that. Guys got off, guys made some easy buckets and I filled in from there."
NOTES: Rockets C Dwight Howard was suspended for Tuesday night's game against the Heat after making contact with an official last Saturday against the Wizards. Howard was ejected with 8:08 remaining after his second technical foul. During the skirmish, he pushed the arm of referee Mitchell Ervin. Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff was fined $10,000 by the league for criticizing the officials after that game. ... Heat C Hassan Whiteside missed his sixth consecutive game with a left hip strain. ... Rockets F/C Donatas Motiejunas was recalled from Rio Grande Valley of the D-League but will not see action with Houston until he has recovered from the back injury that has limited him to 14 games this season. Motiejunas will continue to play for the Vipers until he has reclaimed prime health and conditioning.