NBA Basketball

Rockets look to further integrate Paul vs. Pelicans

For a spell on Sunday, nothing appeared to have changed for James Harden or the Houston Rockets, who leaned heavily on the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player despite the return of point guard Chris Paul.

However, Paul gradually steadied himself and rediscovered his rhythm aside his backcourt mate, and when the Rockets completed their pursuit and surpassed the visiting Orlando Magic in their comeback 103-98 victory, both Harden and Paul were on the court for the stretch run.

In what was the first game for Paul since he sustained a hamstring strain on Dec. 20, Harden produced a line that mimicked those of the previous 17 games without Paul: 40 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots. On Tuesday, when Houston hosts the New Orleans Pelicans, the expectation is that the Rockets will be a bit more in sync.

"He's smart enough. He sees it enough to know how we want to play," Harden said of Paul. "It's just a matter of him getting his actual basketball conditioning up because it's obviously different when you're training without any contact in five-on-five and then you actually get out there on the court. The more games he plays, the better off he'll be."

It was a measured performance for Paul: 12 points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals in 25 minutes. The Rockets will attempt to keep him on a minutes restriction in the foreseeable future, with their glut of guards including Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers critical to that process.

"It might mess up his rhythm a little bit, but it's necessary for us to do that," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said of limiting Paul. "He understands that and is OK with that."

The Pelicans can identify with the trials Houston appears to be leaving behind. New Orleans has dropped five of six games with a roster gutted by injury, in particular to frontcourt personnel.

The Pelicans were without Anthony Davis (left index finger), Julius Randle (right ankle sprain), and Nikola Mirotic (right calf strain) in their 126-114 home loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, leaving center Jahlil Okafor to shoulder the responsibility of manning the paint on both ends.

Okafor responded with season highs in points (24) and rebounds (15). He has averaged 19.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in the four games that Davis has missed.

The 23-year-old Duke product has earned praise for his preparedness despite sporadic minutes, but no matter his productivity, New Orleans needs more on the interior. And while the challenges they are facing with a depleted roster are sobering, the Pelicans haven't yet approached the point of collective exasperation.

That sentiment might change after Davis, eligible to sign a super-max contract extension this summer, told the club that won't re-sign while also requesting a trade.

"We're still not giving up," New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. "We're not giving up on our season, if that's what everybody thinks. We've just got to keep plugging away, and some kind of way we're going to get this thing turned around.

"I don't think you ever want to concede to being a losing team. I know as a coaching staff we're going to work our (behinds) off, I don't care what the situation is. We lose 10 in a row, we're still going to work our butts off and we're going to have the team prepared to play because that's what we're supposed to do."

No matter how hard the Pelicans prepare, they will be severely challenged to slow Harden. The 29-year-old veteran is riding a streak of 23 consecutive games in which he has scored 30 or more points each time. The only three longer such streaks in NBA history were produced by Wilt Chamberlain.

--Field Level Media

Updated January 28, 2019

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