Rockets-Thunder Preview

The Associated Press

The Houston Rockets' three-game win streak has coincided with James Harden's return from a brief absence. He'll try to keep the Rockets heading in the right direction as he faces his short-handed former club.

The Oklahoma City Thunder managed to win their first game without star point guard Russell Westbrook but will likely have a more difficult challenge Sunday night against Harden and the Rockets, whom they eliminated in last season's playoffs.

After missing two games with a sprained ankle, Harden has averaged 25.3 points - 6.0 more than any other Rockets player - during his team's win streak. Houston (21-11) earned two of those wins over last season's Western Conference finalists before rallying for 107-98 victory against New Orleans on Saturday.

Dwight Howard had 24 points and 18 rebounds, and Harden scored nine of his 21 points in the final 3:15. The Hornets led with less than four minutes to go until 3-pointers from Harden and Jeremy Lin put Houston ahead for good.

"It was winning time," Harden said. "I was struggling the first three quarters and couldn't find the rhythm when my teammates needed me the most. ... Everybody picked up the intensity a little bit.''

Harden scored a career-best 46 on 14-of-19 shooting in a 122-119 win over Oklahoma City on Feb. 20 and averaged 26.3 in the six-game series against the Thunder despite shooting 39.1 percent.

"We're in a groove right now. Guys are comfortable with what they're doing," Harden said. "We've got to keep it up. We've got a tough game in Oklahoma City."

Harden was mainly a complimentary player to Kevin Durant and Westbrook during his three seasons with the Thunder, who took him third overall in the 2009 draft. He has blossomed into a superstar since being acquired by the Rockets in a six-player deal Oct. 27, 2012, and averaged 25.5 points in 104 games with Houston.

That's the fifth-highest average in the league over the last two seasons. Durant has an NBA-best 28.2 points per game in that span and Westbrook is seventh at 22.8.

The Thunder point guard, though, is not expected to play until after the All-Star break after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Friday.

Oklahoma City earned an 89-85 win in Charlotte later that day as Durant had 14 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and finished with 12 rebounds. The Thunder didn't receive more than 12 points from any other player, but Durant insists that likely won't provide a winning formula for the foreseeable future.

"I need Reggie Jackson. I need Serge Ibaka. I need Kendrick Perkins. I'm not afraid to say that," Durant said. "I need to lean on those guys, just like we need to lean on each other. That is what team is about. So through adversity we just have to lean on each other."

Durant was held to 16 points on 4-of-13 shooting in his most recent regular-season matchup with Houston but averaged 32.5 in the playoff series. Including the postseason, the Thunder have won six of the last nine matchups with the Rockets and seven of nine at home.

To feed its desire to go deeper in the postseason, Houston signed Howard in the offseason, but Oklahoma City has been effective at shutting him down lately. He's scored a combined 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting (28.6 percent) in his last two matchups.

While hopefully getting a better performance from their big man, the Rockets will seek a season-high third straight road win Sunday. The Thunder had their 13-0 home start end with a 104-98 loss to Toronto on Dec. 22.

Oklahoma City hasn't dropped back-to-back regular-season games on its own floor since March 13-16, 2012, a skid that started with a one-point defeat to Houston.

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