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Game of the Night - Toronto at Houston, 8:05 ET, ESPN
Coming off a 61-point game at Madison Square Garden, James Harden’s one-man show may have seen its final run just outside Broadway.
With Chris Paul expected to see the floor for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury in the second quarter of a Dec. 20 loss in Miami, Harden will finally have more backcourt help than he’s enjoyed in over a month and will likely no longer monopolize the ball as he has in trying to keep the Rockets afloat.
Considering the Raptors hit town equipped with familiar faces in top wing defenders Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in tow in addition to plenty of frontcourt players who can move their feet and switch well on pick-and-rolls, Harden getting some help gives Houston an opportunity to win a game it otherwise would have little shot in.
Paul is officially listed as ‘questionable’ and would almost certainly debut in Sunday’s home date against Orlando if he doesn’t suit up tonight, but having him out there even with a minutes’ restriction would increase the Rockets’ chances. Toronto’s current form has been excellent, producing wins in eight of 10. The Raptors will likely blitz to keep Harden from finding the type of rhythm he enjoyed against the Knicks, getting it out of his hands. They don’t have big men that Harden can easily get the better of in pick-and-roll switches outside of Greg Monroe, so from a personnel standpoint, this defense is right there with Philadelphia, which obliterated Houston 121-93 on Monday night.
Having Paul and Eric Gordon back alongside him would basically be getting the band back together, especially since center Clint Capela remains absent due to a thumb injury. Kenneth Faried was picked up this week and is attempting to help take his place alongside Nene, so chemistry isn’t one of the Rockets’ strong points as they’ve struggled over the past few weeks despite Harden’s continued brilliance.
Many expected the Rockets would collapse without Paul after starting the season as slowly as they did. Although Carmelo Anthony was the early scapegoat, a lack of effort on defense couldn’t be blamed solely on one player. Injuries piling on after Houston had gotten back on track seemed to be an indication that this just wasn’t going to be its year, but Harden’s recent run has helped it win 11 of 16 games without its All-Star point guard.
Harden extended a run of 30-point games to 21 with his heroics at the Garden, scoring at least 37 points in 15 of the 16 games without Paul and topping the 40-point mark 11 times. The “Beard” has taken fewer than 24 shots only twice in the Paul-less stretch, but with Gordon, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green all potentially available to play in addition to Brandon Knight also being upgraded to questionable, Mike D’Antoni can put together small-ball combinations that would make the Raptors think twice about doubling off shooters. Harden has averaged 52.2 points per game over his last five outings.
The Rockets have alternated wins and losses after putting together victories in six straight immediately after losing Paul, notching outright upsets of the Celtics and Warriors. Houston is just 5-5 over its past 10 games and has failed to cover in five of six, including each of its last four. Harden’s act, as brilliant as it has been, often takes teammates out of their rhythm. A more conventional offense where more than one person touches the ball will likely be great for team morale. None of his last 261 points over his past five games have come off an assist.
Conversely, the Raptors have been starting point guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet together and really sharing the basketball. They come off a 110-106 loss in Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back on Wednesday and will have Leonard on the floor for the first time all week after he sat out both games due to “load maintenance.”
Backup forward O.G. Anunoby is also returning to the lineup after missing a couple of games due to personal reasons, so the Raptors will be at full strength outside of the continued absence of center Jonas Valanciunas, who is out with a thumb injury. Toronto’s 15 road wins lead the Eastern Conference and rank behind only Golden State, while Houston has won 17 of its last 20 games at Toyota Center after losing its first four outings there. The Rockets are just 4-2 there this month, losing to the Bucks and Nets.
Best of the Rest
Washington at Orlando, 7:05 p.m. ET: The Wizards gave it their best shot against the Warriors on Thursday night, earning the cover with a late flurry after forcing Steph Curry to miss his last two shots. Trevor Ariza scored 27 points and Tomas Satoransky added 20 points and 10 assists to complement Bradley Beal. All three played 39 minutes while Otto Porter, Jr. worked 34 minutes off the bench, so we’ll see how Scott Brooks’ shortened rotation holds up. The Wizards are 4-2 on the second night of back-to-backs. They’ll be on the road for the first time since Jan. 8 and have dropped nine of 10 outside D.C. The Magic saw Aaron Gordon return from a back injury early in the week and have won four of their last five at home, pulling off upsets over the Raptors, Celtics and Rockets. The ‘over’ has hit in six consecutive Orlando contests.
Charlotte at Milwaukee, 8:35 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Bucks come in tied with the Raptors atop the Eastern Conference but are ahead on winning percentage. No one has lost fewer games (12). Milwaukee puts its five-game win streak on the line against a Hornets squad seeking to get back to .500. Charlotte star Kemba Walker was named an All-Star starter on Thursday and has his team a half-game up on the Heat for the Southeast Division lead. It upset the Bucks 110-107 when the teams played on Nov. 26 and lost just 113-112 at home in the season opener, so it has matched up well with the Bucks. This will be their first trip to Milwaukee’s new Fiserv Forum. Walker scored 41 against the Bucks in the season opener but will have his hands full against the athletic Eric Bledsoe and solid defender Malcolm Brogdon. Four of Charlotte’s last six games have gone ‘under’ the posted total.
Minnesota at Utah, 9:05 p.m. ET: The Jazz come off an impressive win over the Nuggets on Wednesday behind Donovan Mitchell’s 35 points and season-high six 3-pointers. Mitchell has averaged 28.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists this month, finding a rhythm while helping replace point guard Ricky Rubio, who returned from an absence this week. Derrick Rose scored a career-high 50 points against Utah in their Halloween night meeting but left last night’s 120-105 win over the Lakers with an ankle injury. He’s unlikely to play, as is fellow point guard Jeff Teague, who is suffering through a foot issue. Tyus Jones is also out, so the lone point guard on the roster might be Jerryd Bayless. Rudy Gobert has been dominant over the past month and will look to keep Karl-Anthony Towns from continuing his recent surge. The teams meet again on Sunday in Minneapolis.
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