Los Angeles Lakers fans are unlikely to see Kobe Bryant on the court anytime soon, but the Hollywood crowd won’t have to go entirely star-starved Sunday night.
James Harden has filled that role just fine when the Houston Rockets have taken on the Lakers at Staples Center, where Bryant’s teammates will be in danger of matching the franchise’s longest losing streak in nearly a decade.
Whether former Lakers center Dwight Howard is able to play has yet to be determined.
Harden, the league’s leading scorer at 27.3 points per game, had 33 points and 10 assists in Friday’s 113-111 win in Phoenix, including a 20-foot jumper as time expired. The shooting guard is averaging 37.0 points in his last three games while connecting on 13 of 24 from 3-point range.
"It’s a great feeling," Harden told the team’s official website. "They’re a very good team, we had a pretty solid lead and we knew they were going to make a run and they made it at the perfect time. But, we had the last shot. You either make it or you miss it and go into overtime, and I made it."
Harden and his teammates have made plenty of shots against the Lakers at Staples in the past year. Harden has averaged 31.3 points on 54.0 percent shooting in three straight road wins in the series as Houston has put up 129.0 per game.
The Rockets (30-14), however, have traded wins and losses in their last six overall as Memphis has passed them for first place in the Southwest Division.
Consistency could be harder to find if Howard misses time. He exited Friday’s game in the first quarter with a sprained right ankle, and his status for a third return to face his former team is unknown. Houston is 8-4 without him.
"I really couldn’t put any pressure on it," said Howard, who left Phoenix in a walking boot. "But we got the win, so that’s the only thing that matters."
The Lakers (12-32) return for a three-game homestand with Bryant sidelined indefinitely. His torn right rotator cuff will be re-examined Monday before the team decides whether the guard needs potentially season-ending surgery.
Bryant was examined Friday in Los Angeles after the third-leading scorer in NBA history suffered the injury Wednesday in New Orleans.
"We know it’s a tear, but we don’t know to what degree," coach Byron Scott said. "Monday we’ll find out if he’s going to have surgery or not. That’s disappointing in and of itself. We know we’re going to miss him for a length of time, we just don’t know how long yet."
Friday’s 99-85 loss in San Antonio was the Lakers’ seventh straight, and another would match an eight-game skid from March 14-27, 2005. The Lakers are 10-25 with Bryant and 2-7 without.
Former Houston point guard Jeremy Lin could also be absent. Lin, in his first season with the Lakers after spending the previous two with the Rockets, was healthy but didn’t play against the Spurs as Scott gave Jordan Clarkson his first career start at point guard and used Ronnie Price to back up the rookie.
The Lakers were led by Nick Young’s 17 points off the bench, and they’re seeking some sort of offensive direction while shooting 41.9 percent during this skid. Clarkson added 11 points in a personal-high 29 minutes.
"I did a better job of controlling (the pace) today," Clarkson said. "Now I’ve just got to work on getting guys in their spots and just getting what we want in the half-court offense."
Los Angeles is 2-13 at home against Western Conference opponents.