Rockets-Thunder Preview

The Associated Press

James Harden's return to Oklahoma City has taken an emotional and tragic detour for the Houston Rockets.

The spotlight will eventually turn to the star guard.

Only hours after attending the funeral of coach Kevin McHale's daughter on Wednesday, Harden will have to deal with a different set of emotions when he faces the Thunder for the first time since being traded away last month.

Harden spent his first three seasons with Oklahoma City (11-4), winning the league's Sixth Man of the Year award in 2011-12 and helping the team to the NBA finals.

But after he and the Thunder were unable to agree on a long-term extension, Harden was dealt to Houston (7-7) on Oct. 27 in exchange for Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-rounder.

Before the meeting with his former team, however, Harden and the Rockets will be in Minneapolis for the funeral of Sasha McHale - the 23-year-old daughter of head coach Kevin McHale.

Sasha McHale died on Saturday from complications of lupus.

"I think we're strong enough to get through it," Harden said. "We've got to be there for coach. He's going through a lot right now. Our biggest thing is just supporting him, and making sure we comfort him."

Houston will head to Oklahoma City following the services.

"It'll be good to see some faces, some old teammates and coaches," said Harden, who is among the league leaders with 25.1 points per game. "I look forward to every game I play. It's another game."

Harden has averaged 28.3 points during the Rockets' season-high three-game winning streak, pouring in 24 with a career high-tying 12 assists in Tuesday's 117-101 home win over Toronto.

Despite the recent surge, Houston is still concerned about its coach, who has been away from the team since Nov. 10.

"Right now, it's an emotional time for the whole team," guard Jeremy Lin said. "We're missing our leader. Right now, we're just focused on coming out and playing the way we're supposed to play. Hopefully, when he is watching, he can be proud of us."

Lin has totaled 29 points while making 13 of 21 field goals in his past two games after averaging 7.6 over the previous seven.

The Rockets will likely need another strong performance from him if they're going to beat the Thunder for a third straight meeting.

Oklahoma City is averaging 112.7 points on 48.6 percent shooting while winning five of its last six games, and its latest performance may have been its best of the season.

The Thunder built a staggering 54-point third-quarter lead on their way to a 114-69 romp over Charlotte on Monday. They hit 51.3 percent from the floor - 13 of 27 from beyond the arc - while accumulating 31 assists for the third time in six games.

"We know we're a special team when we're sharing the ball, and that's one thing coach (Scott Brooks) has been talking about the last couple weeks," Martin told the team's official website. "Just keep on sharing the ball and trusting each other, and that's what we've been doing lately."

Kevin Durant is just above Harden among the NBA's top scorers, averaging 25.9 points. He had 18 in a season-low 26 minutes Monday.

The three-time scoring champ likely won't mind a visit from the Rockets since he's averaged 29.3 points over the past six meetings on 51.7 percent shooting - hitting 14 of 30 from long range.

Russell Westbrook has been limited to averages of 17.0 points and 4.7 assists over his past three home games with Houston.

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