Rockets-Thunder Preview

The Houston Rockets’ three-game win streak has coincided with

James Harden’s return from a brief absence. He’ll try to keep the

Rockets heading in the right direction as he faces his short-handed

former club.

The Oklahoma City Thunder managed to win their first game

without star point guard Russell Westbrook but will likely have a

more difficult challenge Sunday night against Harden and the

Rockets, whom they eliminated in last season’s playoffs.

After missing two games with a sprained ankle, Harden has

averaged 25.3 points – 6.0 more than any other Rockets player –

during his team’s win streak. Houston (21-11) earned two of those

wins over last season’s Western Conference finalists before

rallying for 107-98 victory against New Orleans on Saturday.

Dwight Howard had 24 points and 18 rebounds, and Harden scored

nine of his 21 points in the final 3:15. The Hornets led with less

than four minutes to go until 3-pointers from Harden and Jeremy Lin

put Houston ahead for good.

“It was winning time,” Harden said. “I was struggling the first

three quarters and couldn’t find the rhythm when my teammates

needed me the most. … Everybody picked up the intensity a little

bit.”

Harden scored a career-best 46 on 14-of-19 shooting in a 122-119

win over Oklahoma City on Feb. 20 and averaged 26.3 in the six-game

series against the Thunder despite shooting 39.1 percent.

“We’re in a groove right now. Guys are comfortable with what

they’re doing,” Harden said. “We’ve got to keep it up. We’ve got a

tough game in Oklahoma City.”

Harden was mainly a complimentary player to Kevin Durant and

Westbrook during his three seasons with the Thunder, who took him

third overall in the 2009 draft. He has blossomed into a superstar

since being acquired by the Rockets in a six-player deal Oct. 27,

2012, and averaged 25.5 points in 104 games with Houston.

That’s the fifth-highest average in the league over the last two

seasons. Durant has an NBA-best 28.2 points per game in that span

and Westbrook is seventh at 22.8.

The Thunder point guard, though, is not expected to play until

after the All-Star break after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery

Friday.

Oklahoma City earned an 89-85 win in Charlotte later that day as

Durant had 14 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and finished

with 12 rebounds. The Thunder didn’t receive more than 12 points

from any other player, but Durant insists that likely won’t provide

a winning formula for the foreseeable future.

“I need Reggie Jackson. I need Serge Ibaka. I need Kendrick

Perkins. I’m not afraid to say that,” Durant said. “I need to lean

on those guys, just like we need to lean on each other. That is

what team is about. So through adversity we just have to lean on

each other.”

Durant was held to 16 points on 4-of-13 shooting in his most

recent regular-season matchup with Houston but averaged 32.5 in the

playoff series. Including the postseason, the Thunder have won six

of the last nine matchups with the Rockets and seven of nine at

home.

To feed its desire to go deeper in the postseason, Houston

signed Howard in the offseason, but Oklahoma City has been

effective at shutting him down lately. He’s scored a combined 14

points on 4-of-14 shooting (28.6 percent) in his last two

matchups.

While hopefully getting a better performance from their big man,

the Rockets will seek a season-high third straight road win Sunday.

The Thunder had their 13-0 home start end with a 104-98 loss to

Toronto on Dec. 22.

Oklahoma City hasn’t dropped back-to-back regular-season games

on its own floor since March 13-16, 2012, a skid that started with

a one-point defeat to Houston.