LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The Houston Rockets continued to steam toward the National Basketball Association (NBA) play-offs on Thursday (March 15), with a 101-96 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, while LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers' run of disappointment in Portland continued.
Houston's Most Valuable Player candidate James Harden scored 24 points with seven assists and five rebounds, and his step-back jump shot to put the Rockets up by four points with 29.4 seconds left helped the Western Conference leaders put away the determined Clippers.
Eric Gordon added 23 points off the bench for Houston, who saw five players score in double figures but uncharacteristically struggled from three-point range.
"It wasn't pretty, but we'll take it," Harden said. "As long as we can just grind out four quarters and continue to do what we do, it's going to be tough for teams to keep up with us."
Tobias Harris led the Clippers with 29 points. Austin Rivers added 20 and scored twice in a 6-0 Los Angeles run that pulled the Clippers within two points with less than a minute to play.
But Harden answered with his mid-range dagger over Rivers and the Rockets improved to 54-14 - two games ahead of the reigning champion Golden State Warriors atop the Western Conference.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers blasted the officiating, saying his players were frustrated by numerous fouls that were not called.
"We doubled them in the amount of points in the paint and it was 24-8 in free throws," the coach said. "That's a joke. That is a complete joke.
"I thought our guys drove and got hit all game," he added in remarks that could draw the ire of the league.
The Clippers remained just outside the eighth and final play-off position in the West, chasing the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs, fighting to add to their streak of 20 straight play-off appearances, edged out the New Orleans Pelicans 98-93.
James and the Cavaliers, trying to get back to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year, became the latest victims of the Trail Blazers, who stretched their win streak to 11 games with a 113-105 win.
Cleveland - who have now lost five in a row in Portland - trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half, trimming the deficit to three with 2:58 left to play only for their comeback bid to fall short.
C.J. McCollum scored 29 points for the Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard added 24 and a game-high nine assists.
James delivered 35 points - including a monster dunk over Jusuf Nurkic in the early going - and 14 rebounds. He also missed a lay-up with 32 seconds left and the Cavs down by five.
Cleveland are just half a game ahead of the Washington Wizards in fourth place in the Eastern Conference - and half a game behind the third-placed Indiana Pacers, who fell 99-106 to the East-leading Toronto.
The Raptors used a 16-4 fourth-quarter scoring run to notched a 10th straight win. DeMar DeRozan scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half for Toronto, who have won 17 of their last 18 games.
Milestone night for Simmons
The Philadelphia 76ers survived a scare against the lowly Knicks in New York, rallying from a 13-point third-quarter deficit to win 118-110.
Joel Embiid led the 76ers with 29 points and 10 rebounds, as six Philadelphia players scored in double figures.
Philadelphia's Australian rookie Ben Simmons notched his second straight triple-double with 13 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
With his eighth triple-double of the season Simmons passed former Lakers great Magic Johnson for second-most ever by a rookie, a list led by Oscar Robertson's 26 in 1960-61.
The 21-year-old also joined Robertson and Johnson as only rookies to reach 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists.
"I try to not to get carried away with what people say," Simmons said, explaining that he is comfortable contributing on multiple fronts.
"People want me to be a scorer or a player that I'm not right now," he said. "I can score. But I can also rebound and pass the ball. I'd rather do that and do what I'm pretty good at than force things."