Over the past couple of years, Houston Rockets’ opponents had one big concern — slowing down James Harden.
When the Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook from Oklahoma City in July 2019, that dynamic changed. The two-time MVP guard has shown why over the past few games. Westbrook has found a groove with Houston over the past seven games, averaging 33.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 9.1 assists.
He will try to continue that torrid play when the Rockets visit the Denver Nuggets on Sunday afternoon.
Denver is a familiar opponent for Westbrook; he faced them at least four times per season when he played with the Thunder. His signature moment against the Nuggets came at the end of the 2016-17 campaign when he hit a 3-pointer to win the final game of the season, a year in which he averaged a triple-double over the 82-game schedule and was the league MVP.
Westbrook was the No. 1 option on that Oklahoma City team but now he’s sharing the load with Harden. The past few games Westbrook has been the offensive catalyst, including a 45-point effort in a win at Minnesota on Friday night. Harden had only 12 points but Eric Gordon scored 27 to help the Rockets win their second in a row after dropping four straight.
“Guys are playing well, and that’s what we need throughout the course of the year,” Harden said after Friday’s game. “Russ got it going, Eric made some big-time shots. Austin (Rivers) played well. That’s what you need.”
Harden was listed as questionable for Sunday’s game due to a left thigh contusion.
Houston’s modest winning streak started against Denver on Wednesday night. The Nuggets were down three starters and two reserves — Michael Porter Jr. and Mason Plumlee — in that loss. They got Gary Harris and Porter back Friday night when they beat the Pelicans in New Orleans.
Guard Jamal Murray (left ankle sprain), forward Paul Millsap (left knee) and Plumlee (right foot) will not play Sunday, but in their absence, Denver has gotten some boost from its reserves. PJ Dozier has played well in spurts after getting called up from the G-League while Malik Beasley, Monte Morris and Porter have helped on offense.
The team’s fortunes go through center Nikola Jokic, and he has come up big lately. He had a triple-double in the loss to Houston and 27 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and four steals in the win over the Pelicans.
Not only has Jokic led the way with his play on the court, the 24-year-old Serbian has become more of a vocal leader during a stretch in which the Nuggets have played three back-to-backs in a span of nine days.
Jokic isn’t a yeller, and he has tried to keep up his teammates’ spirits through injuries and a rough part of the schedule.
“Just positivity,” he said this week. “To guys, or me, to have more confidence in ourselves. We could and we won the game. Just don’t be scared, don’t be surprised, don’t be anything. Just to believe in ourselves.”
–Field Level Media