Houston is now a season-high three games over .500 and just a half-game behind Dallas for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
Ariza opened the show by making his first six shots from the floor before finishing with a season-high 31 points.
Ariza, a slender 6-foot-8, was asked to guard Anthony Davis, the 6-10 beasty power forward for the Pelicans. When Davis went out with a concussion with a minute to play in the first half, Ariza had to guard Ryan Anderson, Davis' 6-10 replacement.
“He’s a monster, man,” Harden said of Ariza. “He don’t get credit for that, he gets overlooked for the defensive teams. Definitely this year he’s in the competition for the [all-defensive] first team.”
Ariza was asked what he says to the coaches when asked to cover bigger people. “Nothing. Let’s go, that’s it,” he said.
Harden nearly finished with a triple-double, ending the night with 35 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. He took a few hacks to the arm, without getting the foul calls, but he still made all 10 of his foul shots. While playing the entire fourth quarter, Harden finished with 10 points, six rebounds with two key assists.
“He was great again. He was flirting with another triple-double,” Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “When he does that, we’re hard to beat. He’s sharing the ball, he’s rebounding. The load that he’s taken because we’ve gone to that small lineup of him having to be on the defensive boards is something people won’t talk a whole lot about. He’s had to do it. All the things he’s had to do, he’s done.”
The Rockets took control of the game with an 18-0 run in the third quarter, but they started off the fourth by missing their first six shots, letting the Pelicans back in the game. Then Harden took over by dominating with his passing and scoring.
He threw a behind-the-back pass to Ariza for a game-tying 3-pointer with 6 minutes, 7 seconds to play.
Following the 3, Harden scored 10 of the Rockets' final 14 points to close the game. But his pass to Patrick Beverley set up the go-ahead bucket. Harden dribbled to his left in the front court and when the Pelicans' Jrue Holiday fell down, it opened up a passing lane.
Harden found Beverley, who smashed a 3 in front of Norris Cole with 69 seconds to play, giving the Rockets a 110-109 lead. It was the final lead change of the game.
There were a few hairy moments after Harden missed the rim on a jumper, causing a shot clock violation with 4.3 seconds to go. But the Pelicans, out of timeouts and needing to advance the ball quickly up court, failed to convert as Holiday’s desperation 33-foot jumper missed.
“Yeah, the good thing about it, guys are making shots, the floor has more space,” Harden said of finding a flow late in the game. “Trevor, Pat hit a 3, [Josh Smith] is an excellent playmaker, the floor has more space. I’m able to get to my spots easier.”
With Dwight Howard out since last week with a sprained ankle, the Rockets have gone small and Bickerstaff implemented Ariza at power forward and has needed Harden to crash the boards more.
In the past two games, Ariza covered Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Davis, but it hasn’t slowed his offensive game. Ariza scored a then-season-high 29 in Sunday’s win, pushing that total by two more on Monday night.
“It takes a lot of energy. Then again, this is what I love to do,” Ariza said. “This is what I prepare in the summer for. As long as my team needs me to play the 4, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Harden has taken on the responsibility of attacking the glass on the defensive end with positive results. He has grabbed 48 rebounds the past four games, including 26 rebounds in the past two.
Ariza and Harden are doing more than what’s required and sometimes that’s needed for the Rockets to win games.
“I don’t think I’ve been doing anything different,” Ariza said. “Just so happens the emotion of the game or the flow of the game has changed a little bit, and just making shots.”
Sometimes, it’s more than that.