NEW ORLEANS — The Pelicans led for a little more than 46 minutes against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday.
They needed two more minutes in front.
James Harden sent New Orleans’ Austin Rivers backpedaling, stepped back and calmly hit a 22-foot jumper that put Houston up with 28 seconds to play.
And despite getting two good shots, including an uncontested 17-footer by Jason Smith, New Orleans’ couldn’t tie the game, falling 103-100 to lose its seventh-consecutive game.
“They made a tough shot on Austin,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “He played him well. Austin thought he got pushed. But in that situation, you’ve got to play tough. You can’t even ask for the refs to bail you out in that situation. It’s not going to happen.”
New Orleans (15-23) had led by as many as 17 points in the first half and even had a 10-point lead at 86-76 with 8:09 to play.
The slow descent into the loss column began with the player the Pelicans didn’t expect to come through for Houston (26-14) hitting a 16-foot jumper. It was two of Terrence Jones’ career-best 25 points.
"To give up 25 to Terrence, and he has been playing his butt off this year, but you don’t anticipate him going for 25," Williams said. 'You can keep him at his average, you can win the game."
Still, even after Houston chipped the Pelicans’ lead to six, New Orleans bounced back, keeping its lead between six and eight for the next three minutes.
And when Brian Roberts completed a three-point play with 2:50 to go, pushing New Orleans’ lead back to seven at 99-92, it looked like the Pelicans would escape.
But then Harden took over and New Orleans had no answer, unable to get the ball to Eric Gordon, who scored a season-high 35 points.
“It was tough,” Gordon said. “Towards the end of the game, we were just trying to figure out who could get the best shot off. Sometimes we used me as a decoy. They did a lot of denying and whenever I touched the ball towards the end, they started double-teaming me.”
Harden didn’t have such problems. He scored eight of the final 11 Houston points.
There was little doubt he would have the ball down the stretch, but New Orleans couldn’t handle him.
Williams took Roberts out of the game to put a bigger body on the floor in case Gordon was switched off of Harden. And sure enough, with the clock counting down to less than 35 seconds, that’s exactly what happened.
Harden jabbed to his right, sending Rivers hurtling backwards. The prolific guard then simply stepped back, calmly sinking the 22-foot game-winner.
“He’s our closer,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said, “so he did what closers do. He closed and we needed it.”
It helped that the Rockets found a way to get to the free-throw line for 41 shots and though they made only 25 of them, they were enough to keep Houston within striking distance.
Anthony Davis did his best to help Gordon, adding 24 points and seven rebounds while getting Houston’s Dwight Howard in foul trouble, which played a part in the power forward finishing with only 12 points and 11 rebounds.