If they can get another balanced effort Monday night at home, they might be fine even if their best player doesn’t return to face the lowly Orlando Magic.
Coming off back-to-back losses, Houston (40-33) didn’t have Harden - the team leader with 26.0 points per game - in uniform Saturday against the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers due to a sore right foot. His absence proved not to matter as five Rockets scored in double figures and the team regrouped from two sub-par defensive efforts to hold the Clippers to 31 second-half points.
Houston had gone winless in two previous games with Harden unavailable due to injuries.
“We had a lot of guys play well,” said coach Kevin McHale, whose team can move within a game of idle Golden State for sixth place in the Western Conference. “The ball was really moving tonight, and it was good to see that. Everybody was in tune.”
That included rookie big man Greg Smith who finished with nine points and eight rebounds in his first NBA start, and Francisco Garcia who matched Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin for the team lead with 15 points after previously falling out of McHale’s rotation.
Those kind of secondary contributions could make the Rockets a dangerous team if they make the postseason for the first time since 2008-09 - also the last time the Rockets swept the season series from Orlando.
Harden was questionable for the last matchup with the Magic due to a knee problem, but scored 11 of his team-best 24 points in the fourth quarter of a 118-110 victory March 1. The Rockets ended a five-game skid in this series.
The Magic (19-55) will be trying to snap a seven-game road losing streak as they continue a five-game trip that started with a 97-88 defeat to Atlanta on Saturday. Two days earlier, Orlando ended an eight-game skid with a 97-92 victory over Washington.
“We’re putting together quarters, we’re putting together halves,” said coach Jacque Vaughn, whose team hasn’t won two straight since a season-best four-game run Dec. 14-19. “That will eventually add up to putting together games and consecutive games.”
Despite losing 42 of 49, the injury-plagued Magic have some reason for optimism. Forward Tobias Harris has been surprisingly good since being acquired from Milwaukee in the J.J. Redick deal in February, averaging a team-best 16.3 points with 8.0 rebounds for Orlando.
He had a then-career-best 27 points with 10 rebounds March 1.
Center Nikola Vucevic more than held his own against Houston’s Omer Asik in that game with 18 points and 10 boards, and the Magic could use that type of effort again after he scored 17 and grabbed 15 boards Saturday following a five-game absence due to a concussion.
Beno Udrih could be the Magic’s starting point guard for a second consecutive game if Jameer Nelson (sprained ankle) can’t go. Nelson missed the previous matchup with Houston with a left patella tendon contusion.