|Harden-less Rockets face stern test in Warriors, Curry|
HOUSTON -- Life without James Harden began in earnest Wednesday night for the Rockets who, missing their Most Valuable Player candidate for the first time this season, performed with a verve reminiscent of the exceptional play that carried them through a 14-game winning streak and to the best record in the league last month.
With Harden sidelined by a Grade 2 left hamstring strain, the Rockets (27-9) throttled the struggling Orlando Magic 116-98. Houston led by as many as 28 points in its wire-to-wire victory and recorded consecutive victories for the first time since their win streak concluded Dec. 20.
Harden missed a total of 15 games over his first five seasons in Houston and participated in all 35 games this year before sustaining his injury inside the final minute of the fourth quarter Sunday night against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Harden will be re-evaluated in two weeks but, given the severity of the injury, could miss more games with this malady than he did over the previous five-plus seasons combined.
The Rockets playing well at Orlando served as a temporary salve. With the Golden State Warriors (30-8) paying a visit to Toyota Center on Thursday, challenges continue unabated.
"I think it's better that we just played pretty well and we can play better, just that feeling," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It feels pretty good, pretty confident. We've got Golden State (Thursday) so ask me (then) but today is a good day. We'll go forward from here and try to hold fort until we get James back."
The Rockets will lean heavily on Chris Paul with Harden unavailable, and while he didn't shoot particularly well against the Magic (3 for 13), Paul recorded a game-high 13 assists in the win. Six Rockets scored in double figures and in the interim, similar collective efforts will be needed.
"We're still trying to get healthy," Paul said. "We're still waiting for Luc (Mbah a Moute) to get back; obviously, James is out for a while. It's by committee right now for us."
The Warriors survived a similar stretch without Stephen Curry, who poured in 32 points and a game-winning 3-pointer Wednesday night in a 125-122 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. It marked the second game back for Curry after an 11-game hiatus due to an ankle injury. He scored 38 on Dec. 30 against Memphis with his 10 treys proving the down time wasn't a detriment.
"He's got some fresh legs and it shows in his shooting," Warriors guard Klay Thompson said of Curry. "Hopefully he can be fresh the whole year."
Without Curry, the Warriors flourished thanks to Kevin Durant, who averaged 28.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.8 blocks with Curry sidelined.
Golden State managed despite Draymond Green (ankle) and Andre Iguodala (knee) missing time as well.
The Warriors' extraordinary depth of talent is at the heart of their annual title runs and, in a micro view, the reason behind their ability to survive a double-digit-game stretch without their two-time MVP.