The Houston Rockets, led by James Harden’s 28 points, punched their NBA playoffs second-round ticket on Tuesday with a 103-94 victory over the Dallas Mavericks.

Harden, a contender for the NBA’s regular-season Most Valuable Player award, delivered a key three-pointer and a steal down the stretch as the Rockets made it out of the first round for the first time since 2009 with a 4-1 win over Dallas in the best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series.

The Rockets now await either reigning NBA champions San Antonio or the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Spurs pushed the Clippers to the brink of elimination with a close-run 111-107 victory in Los Angeles.

San Antonio took a 3-2 series lead and will try to close out the set when they host game six on Thursday.

“It was huge for us,” said Spurs veteran Tim Duncan, who scored 21 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. “We’ve got two chances to try to close it out.”

Kawhi Leonard scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds for San Antonio. Argentina’s Manu Ginobili scored 14 points, while the Spurs’ French point guard Tony Parker and Australian Patty Mills added 13 points apiece.

Blake Griffin scored 21 of his 30 points in the first half and also grabbed 14 rebounds to lead the Clippers. Chris Paul had 19 points and 10 assists and DeAndre Jordan registered 21 points and 14 rebounds for Los Angeles.

In Houston, Harden’s team-mates made sure he didn’t have to do it all for the Rockets.

Dwight Howard scored 18 points and pulled down 19 rebounds. Josh Smith added 20 points off the bench and Terrence Jones scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter.

Houston advanced despite 21 turnovers and a lackluster performance from the foul line — connecting on just 19 of their 36 free-throw attempts.

“Our work is far from over,” Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Monta Ellis with 25 points led the Mavericks, who haven’t won a playoff series since their 2011 championship run.

German veteran Dirk Nowitzki finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds but missed 15 shots and all six of his three-point attempts for the Mavs.

Although Houston never relinquished the lead after the first quarter, the Mavericks didn’t go down without a fight.

They whittled a 14-point deficit to 88-85 with just over five minutes left in regulation.

But as before in this series, the Rockets responded.

Jones converted a three-point play, then connected on a three-pointer to put Houston up by nine.

Nowitzki trimmed the deficit with an uncontested layup, but Harden came up with a three-pointer before a steal and a no-look pass to Jones for a dunk that all but sealed the victory.

“We kept getting in striking distance, but they kept making plays,” Dallas center Tyson Chandler said. “You have to give them credit.” – Agence France-Presse

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