The Houston Rockets are on the verge of securing a playoff spot, and they’ve got their long-absent star big man back to complement MVP candidate James Harden.
The team focus, however, might be on Harden now getting used to playing without his backcourt mate as Patrick Beverley ponders potential season-ending wrist surgery.
The Rockets will play a second straight game without Beverley on Friday night, but it comes against a visiting Minnesota Timberwolves team dealing with an entire roster’s worth of ailments.
Houston (48-23) rallied for a 95-93 win in New Orleans on Wednesday and can clinch a playoff spot Friday with a victory. It was Dwight Howard’s first action in 27 games because of a knee injury, and the center eased into things with four points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes.
He wasn’t lacking opinions on what needs to change for Houston to reach its full potential after it fell behind by 15 after the first quarter.
"One thing I kept telling the fellas was, we’ve got to stop playing around with the game," Howard said. "We’re on a big mission to win a championship, and we’ve got to wake up and play."
Beverley missed the game and will be out for at least a week because of torn ligaments in his left wrist. The injury will then be re-evaluated with the team hoping he can put off a potentially season-ending operation. The Rockets certainly haven’t struggled without him this season, posting a 13-2 record with six straight wins.
Harden had 25 points Wednesday, a relatively mild scoring night considering the numbers he’s put up lately (36.7 points in his previous three), but it was his third straight game in the absence of Beverley with 10 assists. The Rockets are 19-5 when Harden has at least eight assists.
"Now I’m able to go out there and dominate a game not just by scoring the basketball," Harden said. "Whether it’s defensively, whether it’s rebounding the basketball, whether it’s getting 15 assists a night, just being able to dominate a game and figuring out a way to do it."
In his last five games against Minnesota, Harden is averaging 30.6 points and 8.8 assists, including a triple-double (31 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) in the latest meeting.
That 113-102 win in Houston on Feb. 23 made the Rockets to 3-0 in the season series, and they’ve won seven of the last eight against Minnesota (16-55). Andrew Wiggins had 30 points on 12-of-24 shooting, and the Timberwolves have been similarly leaning on him lately with most of the roster injured.
Wiggins had 27 in Wednesday’s 101-99 home overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, and the rookie has averaged 20.5 points in his last four games.
The Timberwolves have gone to overtime in three of their last four – including its past two on the road for its first away winning streak of the season.
"The good thing about us is we’re young, so we don’t get tired easily," said Wiggins, who played more than 48 minutes for the second straight game.
That’s an optimistic take for someone who’s playing without nearly every other impact player on his team.
Kevin Martin (hamstring), Ricky Rubio (ankle), Gary Neal (ankle), Nikola Pekovic (ankle) and Kevin Garnett (knee) have all missed varying amounts of time up to 10 games, not to mention longer-term injuries to Shabazz Muhammad (finger) and Anthony Bennett (ankle).
Martin, Rubio and Garnett are expected to play again this season with Martin’s return likely most imminent.