HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Rockets are finally healthy and have won a season-high nine straight heading into their final regular-season meeting against the Golden State Warriors.
Despite the surge, James Harden & Co. still trail first-place Golden State, which has lost six of 10 capped by a loss to the lowly Suns, by 3½ games in the Western Conference standings. Houston has won all three games against the Warriors this season, but win or lose on Wednesday night, the Rockets have much bigger goals.
“We beat them four times or three times in the regular season ain’t nobody going to remember in about a month,” Chris Paul said.
The Rockets not only want to finish out the season strong to try to pass Golden State and second-place Denver for the top seed in the West. They also have their eyes on finally toppling the Warriors after Golden State has eliminated Houston from the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. They’ve twice lost to them in the Western Conference finals, including last season.
Harden acknowledged that he does get a bit more amped up for games like the one on Wednesday night, but he agreed with Paul that it doesn’t mean more than any other regular-season game.
“I think we all do, but at the end of the day it’s a win or it’s a loss,” he said.
With their recent struggles, the Warriors are viewing the game differently. After Phoenix picked up just its 16th win by beating Golden State on its home court on Sunday night, Steph Curry said: “On Wednesday night we have an opportunity to send a statement.”
Harden scoffed when asked about Curry’s comment.
“I don’t know how they feel. I’m worried about what’s in this locker room,” he said before walking away.
Early this season, it didn’t look like Houston would have a chance to compete for the No. 1 spot after the Rockets limped out to an 11-14 start. Houston shook off its early season woes and has gone 31-11 since to dig out of its early hole and get within striking distance of first place as the regular season winds down.
“This is the team we should have had all year and it just didn’t materialize,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But having said that, with all the stuff we’ve gone through and all the ups and downs, and starting from 11-14 to whatever we are after that, we’re in a good spot and we still have a chance to legitimately make a run for the first spot.”
Houston’s recent success is tied to the fact that all of its key players are finally healthy at the same time after Paul and big man Clint Capela both missed large chunks of time.
Paul sat out from Dec. 22-Jan. 27 with a hamstring injury and Capela missed 15 games from Jan. 14-Feb. 21 after having thumb surgery. Houston’s winning streak began in Capela’s second game back, and the Rockets are 23-9 when he, Harden and Paul all play.
“Everybody has been healthy so it helped our main core to be consistent in our performances and being able to communicate game after game and build off that,” Capela said.
The Rockets also have gotten a boost recently from the strong play of Eric Gordon. He has averaged 22 points over the last five games and has made five 3-pointers in each of the last three. He became the first player not named Harden to lead the Rockets in scoring in 43 games when the Beard got into foul trouble on Sunday night and Gordon’s 26 points led the team over Dallas.
The health of Houston has led to a much more balanced scoring effort after Harden was forced to shoulder most of the load while the team dealt with its numerous injuries.
The Rockets have had at least four players finish in double figures in all but one game during their recent streak and have had six score more than 10 once and five players do it in two other games.
“I love the way we’re playing right now,” P.J. Tucker said. “I think each night we’ve had somebody else different step up and that’s big because when you get to the playoffs and start playing the same team over and over, they start to understand what you do. So it’s good to have multiple guys that can step up every night. We’re seeing that.”
A perfect example came in Houston’s last meeting against Golden State, a 118-112 victory on Feb. 23 that got the winning streak going. Harden sat out with a neck injury, but the Rockets got 25 points from Gordon, 23 from Paul, 20 from Kenneth Faried and 18 from Tucker.
Paul, a 13-year veteran and 9-time All-Star who is seeking his first championship, said that selflessness is a sign of a good team.
“It doesn’t matter who scores or whatever, we’re just playing to win the game,” he said. “I think that’s what will be good for us in the playoffs.”