Preview: Suns vs. Rockets, 8 p.m., FOX Sports Arizona
PHOENIX — No James Harden? No big deal for the Houston Rockets.
Guards Chris Paul, Eric Gordon and Gerald Green have stepped up in the five games that MVP candidate Harden has missed because of a Grade 2 left hamstring strain, and at no time was that more evident than in a 121-112 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.
Paul scored a season-high 37 points and Gordon added 30 in the victory over the Trail Blazers, Houston’s third win in five games without Harden.
The Rockets (29-11) will bring their momentum from strong backcourt performances into a game against the Suns (16-26) in Phoenix on Friday.
The Suns have been on a bit of a roll themselves since their top scorer, Devin Booker, returned, winning four of their last seven.
They will be well-rested for what could be another up-and-down game. They have not played since beating Oklahoma City 114-100 on Sunday.
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Booker had 26 points and TJ Warren had 23 against the Thunder, and the Suns received unexpected support from reserve forwards Dragan Bender and rookie Josh Jackson.
Second-year forward Bender set all sorts of career highs — 20 points, six 3-pointers, 39 minutes — while playing most of the game in place of starting forward Marquese Chriss, who suffered a right hip strain early in the second quarter and did not return. Chriss has been ruled out for Friday’s game.
“It’s a lot of fun just being out there making all those shots, just trying to win the game,” Bender said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about that. Having fun on the court is definitely something we look forward to.”
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Jackson recorded his first career double-double with 17 points, a season-high 10 rebounds and a season-high five assists in 31 minutes, when the Suns played a small group much of the time. He also had a season-high three 3-pointers. He is averaging 14 points, 5.7 rebounds and three assists since being benched against Atlanta the previous week.
The Suns made a season-high 17 3-pointers against Oklahoma City and committed a season-low nine turnovers
“We knew it was going to come with time,” Booker said of the progression of Bender and Jackson. “Just kind of a place where you don’t step in day one and you’re ready to go. Very few players can do that, so everyone is learning. We are getting better by the day.”
Some metrics have the #Suns as a better team without Josh Jackson on the court. Here's how he took that insight, which included a benching last week, and what he's doing about it with coach Triano. pic.twitter.com/1M8F76eD3U
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Booker made 5 of 10 shots from long range against Oklahoma City and is averaging 26.9 points and 3.3 threes in seven games since returning from a left adductor strain injury.
Harden, averaging 32.3 points and 9.1 assists per game, is expected to miss at least several more games for the Rockets, and he will not be the only Houston player absent Friday. Power forward Nene (knee) is expected to miss his fifth straight game, and center Tarik Black was ruled out with a right eye abrasion suffered against Portland.
“We’re having to manufacture points in different ways,” Paul told reporters after the Portland game. “Gerald continues to be great and be aggressive.
“James averages 30, and we’re just doing it by committee.”
Paul has acted as the committee chair in the last four contests, including games of 37, 28 and 24 points while totaling 42 assists and 29 rebounds. He has two double-doubles in that stretch and was one assist short of a double-double in the other two. He took 29 shots against Portland, his career-high in a regulation game, making 13.
“I missed a lot, too” Paul said. “That’s what I’m mad about.”
Gordon has a pair of 30-point games with 14 3-pointers in the five games without Harden, and he was an assist short of a double-double in a victory at Chicago on Monday. The defending NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Gordon is averaging 23.2 points a game while starting in place of Harden.
Green, a former Sun who signed a one-year deal with the Rockets two weeks ago, is averaging 21 points in the last five games, during which he has made 26 3-pointers.
“We’ve just got to have everybody play well and play hard because we have a small margin for error,” Gordon said after the Chicago game.
The Rockets, who made 12 of 38 attempts from 3-point range against Portland, have made at least 10 threes in 36 straight games, a continuing league record.