Suns-Rockets Preview

The Houston Rockets have more than held their own in Dwight Howard’s absence, largely due to James Harden’s spectacular play.

With other injuries piling up, though, Houston likely needs Howard back soon if it wants to claim the Western Conference’s second seed.

The banged-up Rockets seek a fourth straight victory Saturday night against the visiting Phoenix Suns, whom they can sweep for the first time in club history.

Harden is doing his best to carry Houston (46-22) in its bid to catch second-place Memphis. He scored a career-high 50 points in a 118-108 home win over Denver on Thursday while playing in front of former Rocket greats Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. It marked the first 50-point performance for the franchise since Olajuwon scored 51 against Boston on Jan. 18, 1996.

Harden, whose 22 made free throws were an NBA season high, is second in the NBA with 27.1 points per game. Houston is 25-4 when he scores 30-plus.

"We’re trying to build something special like they did (and) to play a game in front of them was definitely an honor," Harden said.

The Rockets have gone 16-8 with Howard sidelined due to swelling in his right knee. Howard – averaging 16.3 points and 11.0 rebounds – hasn’t played since Jan. 23 but returned to practice recently and said he’s "pretty close" to being ready to play.

"I had a good eight weeks of really training and working on my body and mentally I feel good, physically I feel great so I can’t wait to get back on the floor," he said.

Houston’s frontline is becoming increasingly thin, however. Terrence Jones left in the first quarter against the Nuggets and is expected to be out at least a week with a collapsed lung. Fellow forward Kostas Papanikolaou has missed the last 13 games with an ankle injury.

In the backcourt, Jason Terry (hamstring) and Patrick Beverley (elbow bursitis) are listed as questionable. Terry has missed the last two games.

Harden could be in for another big performance after scoring at least 30 six times in his last 12 meetings with Phoenix. Houston won three meetings already this season with Harden totaling 73 in the last two.

Suns (36-33) have won three of four, though their playoff chances are still slim – particularly with the way their offense has performed recently. They’ve averaged 88.0 points on 41.6 percent shooting over the last six games. Top scorer Eric Bledsoe was held to five points and went 2 for 15 in a 74-72 home win over New Orleans on Thursday, Phoenix’s fewest points in a victory since a 74-71 win at Miami on Jan. 30, 1998.

Bledsoe, who also grabbed 11 rebounds, downplayed his poor shooting, however.

"If I’m not making shots, don’t worry about it because I do so much to help my team win, that I’m going to do whatever," he said.

Phoenix is dealing with some injuries of its own, as Brandon Knight (14.4 ppg) has missed the last four games due to a sprained ankle. Center Alex Len is also nursing an ankle injury and has missed two games, though Brandan Wright scored 16 and blocked a career-high seven shots while starting in his place against the Pelicans.

The Rockets are 16-3 since Dec. 31.