Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:56 AM

Weekly Essentials

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Rockets Lift Off Smoothly

Adding Russell Westbrook to the mix hasn’t forced the Rockets to spontaneously combust.

We haven’t seen James Harden wrestle the ball out of Westbrook’s hands in order to dribble 20 seconds before throwing up a fadeaway 30-footer.

Monday night’s 132-108 rout of the Trail Blazers extended Houston’s league-high eight-game winning streak, the second-longest run we’ve seen over the first month behind Boston’s 10-gamer that ended in Sacramento over the weekend. Starters Clint Capela and Danuel House returned from injuries and combined for 33 points and 26 boards in taking down Portland and were obviously missed after being out for multiple games.

Despite their absences and a Westbrook load maintenance game, Houston just rode Harden past the Timberwolves and Pacers to extend a run that began on the second night of a back-to-back in Memphis following a 29-point loss in Miami. The Rockets have covered seven of eight during their winning streak, winning by at least six points each time out. Among West teams, only Denver has a better road record. They entered Tuesday’s action even with the Lakers and Celtics with an NBA-high 11 wins.

Oddsmakers who set Houston’s win total at a Western Conference-best 54.5 games are looking really good at the moment since that was prime fade material given the reservations over how effective the Westbrook-Harden partnership could actually be. Mike D’Antoni helped put Westbrook at ease by telling him to push tempo and has allowed Harden to do what he does in running the offense. The Rockets are a perfect 8-0 against West foes and are going to have an opportunity to make a major statement in road games against the Nuggets and Clippers this week.

Houston is going to be an underdog in both games and has been in that position only once this season, blowing out the Timberwolves at Target Center by 20 while getting a bucket. Minnesota was without typical starting wings Andrew Wiggins and Josh Okogie while the Rockets were down every starter but Harden and P.J. Tucker with Westbrook resting. Capela and House were still out while sixth man Eric Gordon is going to be out until at least late December due to a knee issue.

Harden scored 49 points and got contributions from Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, Chris Clemons and Isaiah Hartenstein to take down the T’Wolves. Only the die-hards would know those last two names. Skeptics would tell you it took Harden 41 shots to fall one shy of scoring but he ended up a plus-16 and drained eight 3-pointers. Clemons, a former NCAA scoring champ at Campbell who most scouts felt would be too small to be effective at the NBA level hit five 3-pointers off the bench and finished with 19.

Thus far, the Rockets have lived a charmed life. There have been bumps, but they’ve navigated them nicely. Harden has led the team in scoring in every game except the season-opening loss to the Bucks. After this week, we’ll have a better idea about whether they should indeed be included with the Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets as the Western Conference favorites. Homecourt advantage can’t be locked up in November, but it can be significantly impacted one way or the other.

Harden may be flirting with a 40 points-per-game average by the time this month is over and a telling stretch of games is behind them. His Rockets have won 10 of 11 against Denver but lost in their last visit to Pepsi Center. They'll head to L.A. for the game all eyes will be on Friday night. Houston returns home to face the upstart Mavericks on Sunday and will host the Heat and Hawks after that. It will only play twice in December’s first six days, visiting San Antonio and Toronto.

Without Gordon, they’ll be attempting to develop some depth that may serve them well down the road. Ultimately, these tough tests will help decipher whether Harden and Westbrook can thrive as a combination, which is one reason why it would be fantastic if the Clippers played Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in tandem when the teams get together on Friday night at Staples. Let the four L.A. natives go at it.

Harden and Westbrook always pack a little extra for games in their hometown. This first trip into the city as a tandem will be telling.

What's going on with?

The Jazz

Center Rudy Gobert asked for the ball more last week in a move that may have gone under the radar nationally but has major ramifications if he’s successful in getting his way. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is looking to become a more well-rounded player and remains a work-in-progress on the offensive side of the ball, but he’s looking for more in-game reps to try and get to where he’s a legitimate threat down come playoffs.

The Athletic Jazz beat writer Tony Jones joined me on the Bet and Collect Podcast to talk about the demand for more touches in addition to Mike Conley’s adjustment period and all things Jazz, so give it a listen for an in-depth view. With Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic coming on board, Utah is a team to keep a close eye on since it is carving out an identity while looking to join that top tier of Western Conference teams looking to rise up with the Warriors’ reign now over.

Gobert enjoyed a three-game stretch between Nov. 11-15 where he made 28 of 33 shots, averaging 22 points, 15.3 rebounds and three blocks, clearly looking more active than he had earlier in the season when getting the newcomers acclimated took precedence. Donovan Mitchell will be Utah’s closer and Joe Ingles will remain hugely influential in his new sixth man role, but Gobert has to be the driving force since his impact on defense is so substantial. This is the year he needs to make his first All-Star appearance. It should be a slam dunk. If he manages to accomplish that, the Jazz are going to be in the mix of elite West teams. They’ll look for revenge Wednesday against the Timberwolves, who spoiled their perfect start at home on Monday night, prior to a weekend back-to-back against the Warriors and Pelicans that may feature them as a double-digit favorite on both nights.

Paul George

After scoring 70 points in 44 minutes to key a pair of blowout wins against the high-scoring Pelicans and Hawks, George knocked down the go-ahead 3-pointer to help defeat OKC on Monday night in a competitive, low-scoring game. In playing 29 minutes, he appears to be back to normal.

It's time to see what he and Leonard look like. A sore knee and the maintenance program the team has in mind for the reigning Finals MVP has kept us from seeing them play together, but that wait could end Wednesday against the Celtics.

Patrick Beverley returned from a hip injury on Monday and contributed to holding off the Thunder, so outside of shooter Landry Shamet being out with an ankle sprain, we're finally going to get to see what the current NBA title co-favorite truly looks like. The Clips are going out on the road for nine of 11 after the week's home games against the Celtics, Rockets and Pelicans, so we're not going to see George and Leonard in tandem often since there's travel and three back-to-backs in there, but the unveiling of this experiment placing a pair of elite two-way wings together appears to have finally arrived.

Carmelo Anthony

He'll wear 00 in Portland, so get ready for jokes about how 'Melo chose a number to match his impact. Due to all of the team's attrition up front, I think Anthony has a legitimate chance to guarantee his contract by remaining on the roster past Jan. 10

Anthony signed a non-guaranteed make-good deal, passed his physical and will now look to find a rhythm after not appearing in a game in over a calendar year. Due to Zach Collins undergoing shoulder surgery and Jusuf Nurkic remaining sidelined, Terry Stotts has been filling the hole at a position that had been adequately filled by Al-Farouq Aminu the past few years with shooter Anthony Tolliver, Skal Labissiere and Mario Hezonja playing out of position. If Anthony has any juice let, he should carve out a spot in the rotation. Considering he signed a non-guaranteed deal and truly felt the sting of not being offered a gig over the past few months, I think we'll see Anthony do whatever it takes to play his role. If he's physically still able to, he should stick. That remains to be seen and can't be proven via Instagram videos.

Injuries to Monitor

Marcus Smart injured an ankle, so a Celtics team already toiling without Gordon Hayward and thriving via a small ball approach that relies on Smart's tenacity and defense could be greatly affected... Orlando forward Jonathan Isaac has emerged as one of the NBA's top defenders this season but hurt an ankle at a team function. He's hoping to return by week's end... Andrew Wiggins has been on bereavement leave and missed Monday's win in Salt Lake City, but he's due back to try and continue what has thus far been an excellent start... Kevin Love is dealing with a back issue that kept him out Monday, so his status is in doubt. Larry Nance, Jr. also missed a loss to the Knicks with a thumb injury but his return is imminent... The Heat hope to have Justise Winslow back from a concussion and Goran Dragic in the mix after an illness to take advantage of their excellent depth... Raptors PG Kyle Lowry is still not ready to return from his thumb issue...Brandon Ingram is working out pre-game to loosen up a sore knee and get back out on the floor for the Pelicans, who are working short-handed with Lonzo Ball (ankle), Derrick Favors (back) and Josh Hart (leg) already sidelined.

Games to Watch

Tuesday - Thunder at Lakers

After a great defensive performance in a narrow loss to the Clippers, OKC runs into LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Wednesday - Celtics at Clippers

Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have made the most of their increased touches and will look at this as a statement game.

Thursday - Blazers at Bucks

Portland is digging itself a hole that will be especially difficult to get out of in the West. Donte DiVincenzo has looked sharp since entering the Bucks' lineup.

Friday - Rockets at Clippers

Let's just hope the load maintentance gets a DNP here.

Saturday - Heat at 76ers

Jimmy Butler faces his former teammates and goes head-to-head with Ben Simmons in a matchup he'll need to get the better of to help Miami pull a road upset.

Sunday - Mavericks at Rockets

Houston closes out a busy week back at Toyota Center against emerging MVP candidate Luka Doncic, who opened the week with a 40-point triple-double.

Free Winner

Saturday - Spurs at Knicks

New York has actually strung some wins together and may enter this with a similar record to slumping San Antonio. Gregg Popovich's team will rebound. It will handle business at the Garden as a road favorite, doing so convincingly.

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