Seemingly healthy, Chris Paul is again making a major impact for the Los Angeles Clippers, but they didn't seem to miss him against the Houston Rockets last month.
This time, it's the Rockets that could be without their top guard.
Paul looks to stay hot Wednesday night and lift the Pacific Division leaders to a fifth straight victory over a Houston team that might be without James Harden.
Paul missed 12 of 14 games with a bruised right kneecap, and Los Angeles (37-17) split those contests. The Clippers withstood his absence in impressive fashion at Houston on Jan. 15, shooting 53.8 percent from the floor - and 11 of 19 from beyond the arc - in a 117-109 victory.
It's been three games since Paul's return, and he was tremendous in engineering wins at New York and Philadelphia in the past two contests. He totaled 46 points, 18 assists and nine steals while hitting 19 of 28 attempts from the field in that back-to-back stretch, which concluded with Monday's 107-90 win over the 76ers.
"I think CP is one of the best players in the world," said guard Jamal Crawford, who has totaled 47 points in the past two games. "He does everything to set us up and get us going."
The Rockets (29-25) may feel the same way about Harden, who is among the league leaders with 26.1 points per game. He's been even better over the past four games, averaging 32.0 points on 54.1 percent shooting - 12 for 27 from long range.
Harden had 27 in Tuesday's 116-107 victory at Golden State, but stepped on David Lee's left shoe going for a fast-break layup and his right ankle twisted violently. He returned, but his reaction after the win hardly sounded like someone who'd be ready to go in less than 24 hours.
"Very tough. I can barely walk. Still limping,' said Harden, who's already dealing with a nagging left knee injury. "I kind of felt the momentum going our way in the third quarter ... so I didn't want to shut it down.'
Still, while Harden could rest up and head back home to Houston, where he'll be teammates with Paul and Blake Griffin in Sunday's All-Star game, he wasn't ready to rule himself out against the Clippers.
"Why not? I'm tough,' he said, smiling.
The Rockets would likely have trouble in their final game before the break even if Harden was 100 percent. The Clippers have won all four meetings since Paul's arrival in LA, averaging 108.5 points.
Los Angeles has also taken three straight in the series at Staples Center, including a 95-91 victory behind Paul's 23 points and five steals in the most recent meeting there March 17.
Paul has averaged 24.8 points over his past four games against Houston, but Crawford did much of the damage with Paul out last month. He scored a game-high 30 points, including 12 straight to start the fourth quarter.
This time, Los Angeles may be without guard Chauncey Billups and forward Caron Butler, who are hampered by sore lower backs that kept them out of the win over the 76ers.
If Harden is out, Houston may need another big effort from Chandler Parsons, who had 21 points, nine assists and eight rebounds Tuesday. The second-year forward is second on the team with 14.5 points per game, and will participate in the NBA's Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend.
While the Rockets are off until next Wednesday after this meeting, that's not the case for the Clippers. They'll be the road team against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.
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