The Rockets try to win four straight for the first time in almost three months Friday night when they visit the injury-plagued and slumping Portland Trail Blazers.
After beating the Los Angeles Clippers and Orlando with Harden sidelined due to a sore right foot, Houston’s leading scorer returned Wednesday in a 112-102 win at Sacramento. Harden, averaging 25.9 points to rank fifth in the NBA, had 21, nine assists and seven rebounds.
Chandler Parsons also came up big with 29 points after sitting out against the Magic with an illness. Houston hasn’t posted four consecutive victories since a season best-tying five-game run Dec. 31-Jan. 8.
“It was great to have James and Chandler back,” said Omer Asik who had 19 points and 10 rebounds. “We knew we had to come in here and play hard.”
In seventh place in the Western Conference, the Rockets (42-33) have yet to clinch a playoff berth. Houston is three games ahead of the Lakers and one behind sixth-place Golden State.
“This was a big win for us on the road,” Harden said. “Golden State is doing a good job of keeping their lead and winning games. We need to do everything we can to keep winning going into the playoffs.”
Houston has to like its chances of keeping things going against Portland (33-42), which has been outscored by an average of 17.1 points during its skid. The Trail Blazers also lost a season-high seven straight Feb. 6-22.
While LaMarcus Aldridge’s possible return from a four-game absence due to a sprained ankle would surely help, Portland is likely to be without Nicolas Batum who also missed Wednesday’s 94-76 loss to Memphis with a labral tear in his shoulder.
In addition to rookie of the year favorite Damian Lillard the Blazers started two other first-year players against the Grizzlies. Meyers Leonard had 10 points and seven rebounds and Victor Claver scored seven.
“You hate to lose and you hate to lose at home,” coach Terry Stotts said. “You want to take away opportunities to teach and to get better particularly with the young guys. More importantly, I want to make sure we continue to play the right way, to play hard, to get better, all the things that you need to do.”
While their playoff hopes have all but faded, the 11th-place Blazers refuse to go down easy.
“We just have to play for each other,” said J.J. Hickson who had 17 points and nine rebounds Wednesday. “You sit in the locker room and you look at guys, you look at the guy next to you. That’s what it’s all about. It’s playing for us and not giving in. Just finish out the season strong to have some momentum for next year. We know the playoffs - it’s getting gloomier and gloomier.”
Aldridge has averaged 29.0 points - 8.0 more than his season mark - on 53.5 percent shooting in three matchups against the Rockets this season. Batum averaged 25.3 in those games, including a career-high 35 in a 119-117 overtime victory Nov. 16.
The Blazers also pulled out a 95-85 overtime road win Nov. 3, but they dropped the last matchup 118-103 at Houston on Feb. 8. Harden had 35 points and 11 assists that night.
Portland will also need to be wary of Jeremy Lin who’s totaled 34 points and 21 assists in recording back-to-back double-doubles.