Rockets-Nuggets Preview

Though the Houston Rockets were able to count on James Harden to remain among the Western Conference's top teams with Dwight Howard sidelined, they are more than happy to have their center back after a three-week absence.

Howard looks to lead Houston to its second straight win over the injury-ravaged Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.

The Rockets (18-5) went 8-3 with Howard out due to a strained right knee, averaging a plus-1.8 scoring margin. Harden led the NBA with 29.1 points per game in that span, shooting 46.3 percent after previously recording a 37.2 mark.

Howard was 9 of 11 from the floor for 26 points with 13 rebounds and three blocks in Saturday's 108-96 home win over Denver (10-14). The Rockets are averaging a plus-8.2 scoring margin while going 10-1 with Howard, who is averaging 19.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.

Houston was 6-5 without him in 2013-14 compared to 48-23 with him.

"I didn't know what to expect," Howard said. "I just wanted to come there and give my teammates everything I had. I didn't play a perfect game, but I gave the hardest effort I could for my team."

Harden had 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his third career triple-double.

Howard's absence may pay off in the long run after it allowed for Donatas Motiejunas' emergence. The third-year forward averaged 14.3 points on 56.2 percent shooting in those 11 games after previously scoring 5.3 per game while shooting 35.8 percent.

Motiejunas remained effective Saturday while sharing the floor with Howard, scoring a career-high 25. Houston matched a season high with 32 second-half points in the paint.

"I think it's important," coach Kevin McHale said of keeping both involved offensively. "Very few teams have two really quality low-post defenders. So we should be able to find ways. Those two are going to have to be able to work together."

Interior defense has been a growing problem for the Nuggets, who are allowing 42.0 points in the paint per game while dropping seven of 10. They had limited teams to an average of 34.9 while winning six of their previous seven.

"We got dominated by their big guys inside," coach Brian Shaw said. "Howard and Motiejunas, we couldn't stop when they threw the ball in the post. They just backed us down and got whatever they wanted."

Denver lost 99-91 to San Antonio on Sunday despite Arron Afflalo's season-high 31 points.

Shaw's rotation is depleted with forwards Kenneth Faried (ankle) and Danilo Gallinari (knee) sitting out, though both are probable. Center JaVale McGee has already missed 10 of the last 11 games with soreness in his surgically repaired left leg and is expected to remain out for a significant time.

"Our guys are pressing," Shaw said. "I know they are tired and banged up. We are short-handed but I don't want to use that as an excuse. We have to find a way to get it done."

Nate Robinson returned against the Spurs after missing four games with a back contusion but was held to two points on 1-for-7 shooting.

The Rockets have lost four straight and nine of 12 in Denver.

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