Lakers-Rockets Preview

The Associated Press

James Harden and Dwight Howard have given the Houston Rockets the prolific combo they were hoping for.

The Los Angeles Lakers envisioned a similar situation after acquiring Howard before last season, though things didn't work out that way.

Howard will face the Lakers for the first time since leaving via free agency in July when the high-scoring Rockets look to extend their best start in six years Thursday night.

After one disappointing, injury-plagued season in Los Angeles, Howard has teamed up with Harden to give Houston (4-1) one of the most talented duos in the NBA.

Despite being paired with 15-time All-Star Kobe Bryant, that never happened with the Lakers (2-3) last year. Howard and Bryant never seemed to get on the same page during a 45-37 season that ended with a first-round playoff loss to San Antonio after Bryant tore his Achilles on April 12.

"There's no need to talk about what the Lakers could have done. I made my decision and I'm living with it," Howard said. "I'm happy where I'm at, I'm in a great place. Everybody should move forward. It's over with."

Harden finished with a game-high 33 points and Howard added a season-best 29 points and 13 rebounds as the Rockets continued their strong start with a 116-101 victory at Portland on Tuesday.

Howard's numbers are up slightly at 17.4 points and 14.6 rebounds per game, and with him patrolling the paint the Rockets rank second in the NBA with a plus-10.2 rebounding margin after finishing at plus-1.8 in 2012-13.

Harden, who averaged 25.9 points last season, has picked up where he left off with a 25.2 average in the first five games. He's totaled 61 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists in his last two against the Lakers.

"Dwight makes the whole game so much easier for each teammate," Harden said. "He draws double teams. He's a great passer. He dominates the post and he can score it. He does everything."

Considering their defensive struggles, the Lakers will have their hands full with the surging Rockets, who haven't won five of their first six since a 6-1 start in 2007-08.

Los Angeles, which hardly resembles the team Howard played for last season, ranks near the bottom of the league in opponent field-goal percentage (47.9), scoring (109.0) and turnovers (13.6) per game.

Following a 123-104 loss at Dallas on Tuesday, the Lakers have dropped their two road games by a combined 50 points.

"You can't get blown out and then think now we need to learn to win," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "No, we need to learn how to play. We're not playing right now."

Paul Gasol is averaging a team-best 14.6 points and 10.4 rebounds, but was limited to a season-low 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting by the Mavericks.

In the most recent meeting with the Rockets on April 17 in Los Angeles, Gasol posted his seventh career triple-double with 17 points, 20 boards and 11 assists in a 99-95 overtime win.

Houston's Chandler Parsons had 23 points in that contest, including a 34-foot, line-drive 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. He averaged 20.0 points on 54.4-percent shooting as the Rockets split the four games with the Lakers last season.

Houston has won four straight over Los Angeles at Toyota Center.

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