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HOUSTON -- It didn't require much effort to disregard the rust affecting Houston Rockets guard James Harden on Thursday night to instead take inventory of the potency he provided in lockstep with his fellow backcourt mates Chris Paul and Eric Gordon.
While throttling the Minnesota Timberwolves 116-98, Harden, Paul and Gordon showcased to the league what has been missing in Houston for the better part of the past month. The Rockets (31-12), inundated by injuries throughout the first half of this season, were almost whole against the Timberwolves at Toyota Center, and the glimpse of their productivity was telling.
Houston will remain without Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, both suspended for their roles in a postgame dustup with the Clippers on Monday, when it hosts the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night. But for the first time since Dec. 13, injuries won't undermine the Rockets' plans.
"That's one of the things that we were all excited about, coaching staff included, (Wednesday) in practice. We just all looked so good," Harden said following his return from a seven-game hiatus. "The ball was moving, defensively we were communicating. You've got 10, 11 guys that can produce at any moment. Once we get those guys back you should see a difference."
Harden failed to score at least 20 points for the first time, posting 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting and seven assists in 25 minutes. But Gordon produced 30 points off the bench while Paul delivered another sterling all-around effort with 19 points, six rebounds and seven assists.
The last time the Rockets had their rotation intact, they beat the Charlotte Hornets on Dec. 13 for their 11th consecutive win. They improved to 9-8 since on Thursday, having survived games without Harden, Paul, and Luc Mbah a Moute. With renewed health comes a renewed focus.
"As we're getting healthy, we've got to get back to the things that we need to do best," Gordon said. "That's when we're playing good team ball offensively and we're playing really good team defense. When we're doing both early in the game, you can almost determine that we're going to have a great outcome."
The Warriors (37-9) test the Rockets like no other team in the league, and their 14-game road winning streak will offer a stiff challenge to a team looking to put all their pieces back together.
Golden State has won 24 of 28 games since its last road loss, a 108-91 setback at Oklahoma City on Nov. 22. And while the Warriors have dealt with their share of maladies, from Stephen Curry to Draymond Green to Andre Iguodala to rookie Jordan Bell, they're better equipped to sidestep roster attrition due in large part to their roster stability. And, of course, their talent.
With a victory, Golden State would set a franchise record for consecutive road victories and would complete its five-game road trip unblemished. Through a scheduling quirk, the Warriors spent four nights in Chicago, where they defeated the Bulls 119-112 on Wednesday, before traveling to Houston, site of the Warriors' 124-114 victory on Jan. 4.
"It's been a phenomenal road trip," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "And now we've got a chance to have ... a leisurely evening in Houston and hopefully finish the trip off right."
The teams have split their previous two meetings this season. The winner on Saturday will claim the season series tiebreaker.
Updated January 20, 2018