NBA Basketball

Paul returns to action as Rockets host Magic

In the days immediately after Chris Paul suffered another hamstring injury, the sense of foreboding for the Houston Rockets was palpable thanks in part to the recent memory of their performance in Games 6 and 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals with Paul suddenly sidelined.

In hindsight, the Rockets had little reason to fret. Reigning MVP James Harden elevated his game into the stratosphere and Houston did more than survive with Paul unavailable, going 12-5 over the 17 games Paul missed, including a 121-119 win over the Toronto Raptors on Friday.

Paul is expected to return on Sunday when the Rockets (28-20) host the Orlando Magic at Toyota Center. What Houston managed in his absence is a testament to Harden and his supporting cast, piecemealed as injuries to Eric Gordon and Clint Capela complicated matters.

"I think we played great. As a whole we played great," Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. "Everybody has chipped in and did a little bit more. Clint being out too made it a little bit tougher but I think guys have adjusted, guys have stepped up and played hard.

"I think we've gotten better in a lot of different areas, so when (Paul) comes back it's a better team for sure."

Harden deserves extensive praise for keeping the Rockets afloat. Before he posted 35 points, two rebounds and seven assists over 40 minutes against the Raptors, he averaged 44.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.1 assists while logging 38.9 minutes over the first 16 games without Paul.

There is some concern over how Harden will perform in the playoffs if the Rockets qualify given his excessive workload with Paul out, but to his credit, Harden did everything possible to keep himself physically prepared for the challenge.

"On off days he'll go in and get his work done in the training room but also the weight room," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I think he understands how good he's playing and wants to keep it right there as long as he can. And he's doing everything possible."

One of the Rockets' five losses without Paul came against the Magic (20-29) on Jan. 13 at the Amway Center, the second of back-to-back wins for Orlando in which it erased 12-point deficits against stiff competition. The Magic defeated the Boston Celtics before the Rockets but have dropped four of five since, including a 95-91 home loss to the Washington Wizards on Friday.

The Magic, a middling 3-point shooting team relative to makes (16th at 11.0 per game) and percentage (15th at 35.1 percent) shot a miserable 21.2 percent (7 for 33) against the Wizards.

When they rallied to defeat the Rockets two weeks ago, the Magic sank 9 of 24 attempts from deep.

"We don't have range shooting," Orlando coach Steve Clifford said after the loss to Washington. "If you look at our roster, that's not a strength. There are going to be nights when we don't make (3-pointers). That's where you've got to be able to defend."

--Field Level Media

Updated January 26, 2019

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