A game broke out during the fight between the Rockets and Clippers on Monday night. The Rockets appear to have lost both the battle and the war falling in the game and then being made fun of relentlessly for a postgame sojourn, reportedly through a secret passage, into the Clippers locker room to fight Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers (Rivers didn't even play Monday, out with an injury). The whole thing would be hilarious...if the Rockets won against a surging Clippers team, but they didn't, which was particularly unfortunate in Chris Paul's return to LA.
But, lost in the near melee was the quiet return of swingman Luc Mbah a Moute, who had been out for a month with a shoulder injury. While his stat line was modest, with 5 points in 26 minutes, he did have 3 steals, contributing perimeter defense the Rockets have lacked in his absence.
Then, on Wednesday, the Rockets upgraded James Harden, who has been out for just over two weeks with a hamstring injury, to questionable Thursday night against Minnesota. They also dropped a little subtweet with a photo of Harden working his injured leg with a trainer with the words, "Soon Return of the Beard."
It seems almost a certainty Harden will be back on the floor, if not Thursday, perhaps on Saturday when the Warriors return to Houston. Additionally, Nene, who had missed nearly two weeks with a sore knee, is also questionable to return Thursday.
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This marks a critical stretch for the Rockets who have been a pretty mediocre squad since mid December, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. They have managed to keep one of the three best records in the NBA, including three-game leads on both San Antonio and Minnesota, the Warriors have stretched their advantage over the Rockets to four-and-a-half. With games against both Golden State and the Timberwolves this weekend, the return of Mbah a Moute, Harden and Nene could not be more well timed.
With a month remaining before the All-Star break and the Rockets currently at the halfway point of the season at 30-12, on pace for 60 wins, this provides them an opportunity to rack up some wins and get fully healthy before the stretch run into the playoffs. And their schedule is somewhat accommodating beyond this weekend.
In the 13 games after this weekend leading up to Valentine's Day and the mid-season breather, the Rockets face the Suns, Pelicans, Magic, Nets, Kings and Mavericks twice. They play a spunky Heat team twice (away and home) and a solid Nuggets group as well at Toyota Center, but all are winnable games. They also face Cleveland, San Antonio and Minnesota, all on the road during that stretch.
For the moment, the hope is a return of a healthy Harden will be enough to give them the edge at home this weekend, and they can regain some of that swagger they had early in the season. If they are at full strength for the first time since mid December, hopefully they can focus their attention on the floor and not worry about fights in the locker room.