HOUSTON -- While the Rockets have essentially tread water since winning 31 of their first 40 games, one thing they have avoided is a lengthy losing streak.
By throttling the Chicago Bulls over the second and third periods on Friday night, the Rockets (45-21) avoided their first three-game skid of the season. While Houston is just 14-12 since Jan. 11, its ability to avoid a prolonged slump has enabled it to maintain its lofty perch in the Western Conference standings. That ability might prove vital given the volatility below them in the postseason picture.
As usual, All-Star guard James Harden was the linchpin in the Rockets' 115-94 victory. Harden posted 19 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and three steals over 33 minutes. Harden leads the NBA in minutes played (2,405) and has yet to miss a game this season. In an era where stars routinely rest in advance of grueling postseason workloads, Harden has played in all 66 games for Houston this season.
Harden started all 82 games last season and missed just one game the previous season, that coming via suspension. A healthy debate can be had on which MVP candidate shoulders the greatest responsibility for his team -- Harden, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and Cavaliers forward LeBron James -- yet what is clear is that Harden embraces the chore of playing in every game possible with Houston.
"I love playing," Harden said. "I can't afford to take nights off. That's not what I get paid for. I love playing the game of basketball and quite frankly I won't be playing forever. So, I'm just taking advantage of the opportunity while I'm here. I love being out there on the court helping my teammates playing for the Houston Rockets."
The Rockets will host the Cavaliers (43-21) on Sunday at Toyota Center. Cleveland claimed the first meeting this season 128-120 on Nov. 1 but hasn't swept a season series from the Rockets since the 2001-02 campaign.
The Cavaliers snapped a three-game skid with their 116-104 win in Orlando on Saturday night. They did so without swingman Kyle Korver (sore left foot) and with James logging 38 minutes while posting his ninth triple-double (24 points, 12 rebounds, 13 assists). James has played at least 38 minutes 30 times this season.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has occasionally rested James and guard Kyrie Irving, who logged 36 minutes against the Magic. With Cleveland facing a back-to-back, Lue was noncommittal on his plans for James and Irving against the Rockets.
"I'm not sure yet," Lue said.
Despite sitting in first place in the East, the Cavaliers have featured a roster in flux throughout the season. The loss of Korver coincided with the return of guard J.R. Smith. Forward Kevin Love remains on the mend following knee surgery last month. And, after losing center Andrew Bogut less than a minute into his debut, the Cavaliers are rumored to have interest in former Bucks center Larry Sanders.
Cohesion has been elusive, but as the season winds down, Cleveland remains confident that it will be whole soon enough.
"At the end of the day we're right where we want to be: first place in our conference," James said. "We want to get healthy so we can see exactly who we can become."