Alvin Gentry couldn’t have given James Harden much higher praise Sunday night, and that was before one of the league’s top-two MVP candidates helped his squad throw an early knockout punch against the over-matched Pelicans.

“He takes advantage of every rule, and that’s a real positive to me. That’s not a negative, for someone to understand the game enough that they can do that,” said Gentry after the Pelicans’ 113-90 blowout loss to the Rockets. “I think he’s the best offensive player out there, and I can’t think of one, really, over the course of their career that’s been better than he’s been, from the standpoint of being able to put up the kind of numbers he’s done, and do it efficiently.”

When set next to his 118 points over his past two games — including tying his career-high of 61 on Friday night in a 111-105 victory over the Spurs — Harden’s 28 points Sunday night aren’t exactly eye-popping. But for a team who’s won 14 of its past 16 and is hunting down a top-two playoff seed with eight games to go, Harden recognized exactly what Houston (47-27) needed against a foe tinkering with different youthful lineups and looking toward the future.

Harden finished 10-of-19 shooting – 6-of-12 from beyond the arc. But he and former Pelicans guard Eric Gordon, who finished with 18 points, all from 6-of-11 shooting from deep, did the majority of their damage early to put the game out of hand.

With the Pelicans (31-44) hanging tight early, trailing 15-13 with just over three minutes left in the first quarter, the Rockets went through a two-minute tear where they suddenly couldn’t miss. Gordon’s trio of 3-pointers, along with one apiece from Harden and Daniel House Jr., over a 2:09 stretch pushed the deficit to 30-17, a double-digit mark the Pelicans would never recover from.

Gordon and Harden combined for 24 points in the game’s first 12 minutes, including a 6-for-10 mark from beyond the arc.

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Coming out of the post-first-quarter huddle, Gordon picked up right where he left off, knocking down another trey to push the spread to 17, leaving little doubt in the game’s outcome from there, especially with the help from New Orleans’ nine first-half turnovers that allowed Houston’s lead to grow to as many as 23 points before settling at 63-44 at halftime.

The Rockets finished 21 for 49 from beyond the arc, while the Pelicans struggled from deep at 7 of 28, something Gentry said explained the game’s disparity in a single stat.

“You’ve gotta be able to score against this team, and we didn’t shoot it at the percentage to stay in the game,” he said. “And then we added turnovers, and one thing you can’t do is turn the ball over against this team, cause it’s as tough as it is to guard Harden.”

The team’s lone bright spot came in another strong performance from rookie guard Frank Jackson, who dished in a team-high 19 points while totaling a career-high six assists. He’s now averaging 17.4 points per game over his past eight contests.

Julius Randle followed with 15 points, and Stanley Johnson added 13 off the bench on an efficient 6-for-8 shooting night from the field.

“(These games) are hard any time in a situation like this, but for us, there’s a bigger picture,” Gentry said. “And so at some stage, I don’t really care what the score is. It’s about doing the right thing and executing the things we’re trying to have them do out there or being in the right position on defense.”

Follow Nathan Brown on Twitter, @nbrownadvocate.