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Rockets-Bobcats Preview

AP - Sports

The Houston Rockets' offense has taken off with Dwight Howard grounded.

With or without their star center Monday night in Charlotte, the streaking Rockets will go for their fourth straight victory as they continue to chase the Los Angeles Clippers for third place in the Western Conference.

After losing three straight with their big man on the floor, Houston (47-22) has won its last three while Howard rested a sore left ankle he had a cyst removed from Tuesday. He practiced Friday, but there's no word on his status against the Bobcats (34-36).

The Rockets have shot 54.7 percent during the current hot streak that includes victories over Utah, Minnesota and Cleveland by an average of nearly 23 points. In Saturday's 118-111 win at Cleveland, James Harden had 37 points, including 14 of 14 from the foul line, and 11 assists in three quarters of action.

"Great players do that, they get going," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "I've seen James do it countless times, but that's what separates him from a lot of players. He has the ability to do that."

While Harden is averaging 27.5 points in his last four games, plenty of others have helped the offense click with Howard out.

Omer Asik has started the last three games and is averaging 11.0 points and 8.3 rebounds, while small forward Terrence Jones has chipped in 18.0 points on 65.5 percent shooting. But on nights like Saturday, they don't mind watching Harden take over a game.

"When anybody goes off like James did, we're happy for them," Jones told the team's official website. "That's the kind of group that we have. James is a leader, a great player, and one of the most important guys on our team, so it's always fun to watch."

Houston remains 1 1/2 games behind the Clippers for the No. 3 spot in the West, while the Bobcats sit seventh in the East.

Advancing out of that spot to avoid Miami or Indiana in the first round of the playoffs remains within reach with 12 games to play, though making progress against the Rockets will require the Bobcats to end a six-game skid in the series.

The latest loss was a 96-83 defeat in Houston on Oct. 30 in the season opener for both teams. Harden led all scorers with 21 points as the Rockets held the Bobcats to 36.7 percent shooting.

Howard benefited from all of the misses to match a career high with 26 rebounds. He has six straight double-doubles against the Bobcats, averaging 17.5 points and 18.8 rebounds in those games.

More recently, the Bobcats have won seven of 10, including a much more promising offensive night in Saturday's 124-94 home victory over Portland to begin a three-game homestand. It was their highest-scoring game and largest victory margin this season.

It was also their third straight win over the West, featuring solid nights from their top three scorers with Al Jefferson's 28 points, Kemba Walker's 26 and Gerald Henderson's 23. The trio combined for a 60.7 percent shooting night.

"We're going to have a good chance to win if all three of us are playing well offensively," Henderson said. "We're not always going to score that every night, but if we can play the kind of defense that we did tonight, we should have a good chance to win."

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