Houston Rockets guard James Harden looked both physically and emotionally spent following an extended road trip that started at the All-Star Game in Chicago and continued with Monday's public memorial service honoring Lakers legend Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.
Harden arrived at Toyota Center in time to torch the New York Knicks for 37 points and nine assists in a 123-112 victory Monday night.
The Rockets, winners in eight of 10 games, will host the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday while seeking to continue their climb up the Western Conference standings. Emboldened by its success following a shift to playing small at the trade deadline, Houston has its sights set on something greater than home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"We've got to win as many (games) as we can," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "With 25 left, we've got to get a bunch of them because we do want to come in second place. That's doable but it will take some big wins. We've got some hard games coming up.
"The main thing is just to play well. We're playing well. I like what we're doing."
Following the Grizzlies, the Rockets (37-20) will face the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers during a two-week stretch. Significant challenges to be sure, but Houston has found a rhythm in recent weeks, one that was not disrupted by guard Russell Westbrook sitting against the Knicks with thumb soreness. Without Westbrook, the Rockets found complementary scoring elsewhere in support of another strong showing from Harden.
In the aftermath of Ben McLemore (17 points), Eric Gordon (16) and Austin Rivers (14) all scoring in double figures, the Rockets were questioned about their ample depth. For Rivers, the multitude of offensive options serves the bottom line that D'Antoni made clear.
"It's about getting that third or second seed," Rivers said.
Adversity has found the Grizzlies, who have dropped the first three games of a four-game road trip that will conclude in Houston. Already down second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who's sidelined for a minimum of two weeks with a left knee sprain, the Grizzlies lost his replacement, rookie Brandon Clarke, when Clarke succumbed to hip soreness after logging just three minutes in a blowout loss to the Clippers on Monday.
Without Jackson and Clarke, Memphis relied on a smaller lineup that might have been a preview of how it will match up against Houston.
The Grizzlies (28-29) have lost three games in a row for the first time since early December.
Memphis roared into playoff contention by winning 15 of 19 games entering the All-Star break, but Jackson is the Grizzlies' second-leading scorer, and his absence leaves them vulnerable.
The Grizzlies entered Tuesday in eighth place in the West, three games ahead of Portland in the loss column. But the Trail Blazers remain dangerous, and the New Orleans Pelicans, energized by the return of rookie forward Zion Williamson, look to be the wildest of wild cards.
--Field Level Media