James Harden and the Houston Rockets were one half away from the NBA Finals last time they played at Oracle Arena.
The way the Rockets are rolling now, they might just get another shot at the champs this postseason.
The Rockets try to wrap up a perfect month at home Monday against Memphis, then visit Golden State for the first time since the Western Conference finals, having recovered from a rough start thanks to Harden’s torrid stretch.
He has scored 40 points in three straight games and 35 or more in seven straight, the longest streak since LeBron James did it in nine in a row in 2006. The NBA scoring leader’s quest to repeat as MVP is clearly on track.
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And after a poor start, so are the Rockets (20-15). They have won four straight and nine of their last 10 games overall, and are 8-0 at home in December after dropping their first four games at the Toyota Center.
Just like Game 6 of the West finals, when they blew a double-digit lead, they will play at Golden State for Thursday’s nationally televised game without Chris Paul because of a hamstring injury. But instead of what had been a shaky season getting worse, the Rockets have surged in his absence because of Harden.
“Somebody said the other day that we can only win if he scores 40. OK, that’s kind of a bad thing, but the good thing is he can score 40 every night, so we’re OK with that,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
“Tell him to keep going.”
NEW YEAR, OLD HOME
Kawhi Leonard’s first trip of the new year is to his old home.
The Toronto Raptors visit San Antonio on Thursday for what became one of the most anticipated games of this NBA season this summer when the Spurs gave Leonard the exit he had been seeking, trading him to the Raptors.
Leonard was the NBA Finals MVP when the Spurs won their last championship in 2014 and had become one of the league’s most complete players by last season. But he was limited to nine games because of a quadriceps injury and his relationship with the organization became strained.
The Spurs dealt him along with mainstay Danny Green to Toronto, getting All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan back.
Leonard led Toronto to the best record in the league for most of the season and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year’s absence has shown on the Spurs’ defense, long one of the league’s best but well back in the rankings now.
While the game Thursday is the most newsworthy, it’s not the most important of the week for Toronto. The Raptors follow it Saturday by visiting the Milwaukee Bucks, who have inched ahead of them for the NBA’s best record and have won both meetings this season.
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEK:
Orlando at Charlotte, Monday. Magic coach Steve Clifford returns to face the team he coached for five seasons.
Oklahoma City at Lakers, Wednesday. Chance for Californians Russell Westbrook and Paul George to put on a show for the fans back home.
Atlanta at Milwaukee, Friday. Mike Budenholzer’s move from Atlanta to Milwaukee couldn’t look much better.
Dallas at Philadelphia, Saturday. The reigning Rookie of the Year (Ben Simmons) against the player (Luka Doncic) who could succeed him.
AYTON IN ACTION
Deandre Ayton will finish his strong December by testing himself against the NBA champions. Then he opens January against a different kind of test — perhaps the toughest in the league at his position.
The rookie center squares off for the second time against Joel Embiid on Wednesday when the Phoenix Suns host the Philadelphia 76ers.
Luka Doncic might already have too much hype and highlights to be caught in the Rookie of the Year race, but Ayton’s strong play certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. The No. 1 pick scored a season-high 33 points on 16-of-20 shooting and added 14 rebounds Saturday in a 122-118 loss to Denver, after he came into the game averaging 16 points and nearly 12 boards for the month.
“You can feel game-to-game he is getting better,” coach Igor Kokoskov said last week. “He is working on his game. He is a very dedicated player. It was just a matter of time.”
That improvement has helped the Suns go 5-4 in their last nine games — one more victory than they had during a brutal 4-24 start.
After facing Golden State on Monday, it’s on to his second matchup with Embiid, one of the league’s biggest talkers who was already chirping about Ayton even before he’d played his first game. After the former Arizona star was compared to him in June, Embiid wrote on Twitter: “Don’t compare Ayton to me either. I play DEFENSE.” He then told ESPN in a preseason interview that Ayton was “about to get his (butt) kicked.”
Embiid had 33 points to Ayton’s 17 in the 76ers’ victory in Philadelphia in November.