Paul is gifted

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James Harden is a seven-time All-Star, last season’s Most Valuable Player and the NBA’s leading scorer with a 36.5 average, but wasn’t in the starting lineup with a neck strain and flu-like symptoms when the Houston Rockets visited the Golden State Warriors last Saturday night.

Without missing a step, the Rockets (34-25) blasted off early and earned a 118-112 victory over the defending champions at Oracle Arena.

Chris Paul made up for shooting guard Harden’s absence by tallying 23 points with a game-high 17 assists and five rebounds.

“We played hard, but you also have to play smart,’’ said Paul, the fourth pick in 2005 by the New Orleans Hornets and a nine-time All-Star point guard. “We knew they were going to make a run.’’

Shooting guard Eric Gordon poured in a team-best 25 points with four assists and power forward Kenneth Faried dropped in 20 points with 10 caroms.

The Rockets scored the first 15 points before shooting guard Klay Thompson (20 points with six assists and four rebounds) nailed a three-pointer.

When small forward Kevin Durant (game-high 29 points with four boards and three assists) made a pair of free throws, the Warriors, seeking a fourth title in five years, drew within 18-8 and 6:53 left in the first quarter.

Houston took a 35-20 lead into the second frame as small forward P.J. Tucker (18 points with 10 rebounds) contributed 10 points.

Durant had nine points for Golden State (42-17), which had gone 17-2 over its last 19 games.

A three-pointer from Paul gave Houston a 45-28 lead with 7:27 left in the first half.

With 4:18 showing in the second period, Golden State point guard Stephen Curry (25 points with nine caroms and seven assists) hit a trey that trimmed the lead to 50-35, and the Warriors outscored the Rockets 19-11 and trailed 61-54 at halftime.

Gordon tallied 14 points, Faried 12, while Paul and Tucker each added 10 at the intermission.

Durant accounted for 19 points at the break while Curry scored 13 points for the Warriors (42 of 90 for 46.7 percent).

Paul’s free throw after center DeMarcus Cousins (13 points with a team-high 14 rebounds) was hit with a technical foul gave the Rockets (43.5 percent on 40 of 92) a 74-71 lead with 6:55 remaining in the third quarter.

Tucker’s trey at the buzzer handed Houston, which has beaten Golden State by an average of 11 points in two previous meetings, a 92-86 edge heading into the fourth quarter.

Curry’s three-pointer with 4:16 left cut the advantage to 110-102, but Tucker’s two charity tosses with 18.1 seconds sealed the win.

Rick Assad has written about sports for the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times. Contact him at yankeespride55@gmail.com.

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The Sports Department Rick Assad has written about sports for the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times. Contact him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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