James Harden shook his head at the suggestion that the Houston Rockets are developing a rivalry with the Portland Trail Blazers. The recent history between these teams - particularly in the case of Harden's performances - might suggest otherwise, however.
Houston looks to once again shake off the memory of last year's playoff disappointment by continuing its regular-season dominance of Portland on Sunday night.
The Rockets (35-15) have won 10 of 13 regular-season meetings and 17 of 20 at home. They've averaged 118.0 points while winning the last four there.
Portland won a tightly contested Western Conference quarterfinal series last year 4-2, though, with three of its victories coming by three points or fewer, including two in overtime. Harden averaged 26.8 points in the series but shot 37.6 percent - 8.0 below his 2013-14 field-goal percentage.
He and the Rockets gained a measure of revenge when he scored 44 on 14-of-26 shooting in a 110-95 home victory on Dec. 22. He scored 41 in last year's final regular-season meeting and is averaging 32.8 on 52.5 percent shooting, including 48.3 from 3-point range, over his last eight regular-season matchups
Harden said there isn't a budding rivalry developing, however.
"We're worried about ourselves and trying to get a rhythm, get it going a little bit," he said. "We see teams around the league going on streaks and whatnot, and they're peaking. We're going to peak very soon. For us it's about what we can control and how we can get better."
The Rockets, who are two games back of division-leading Memphis for second place in the West, appear be on the right track despite losing Dwight Howard for at least four more weeks after he had an injection in his right knee. They're 13-5 without him and Friday's 117-111 victory over Milwaukee was the Rockets' sixth in seven games. Harden had 33 points and is averaging 29.4 over his last nine while shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range.
Houston was 15 of 32 from long distance against the Bucks, improving to 30-7 when making at least 10. Portland has been vulnerable to perimeter shooting lately, letting its last six opponents go 60 of 153 (39.2 percent) from deep.
The Trail Blazers (34-17) have lost four of six and seven straight on the road. They're 22-5 at home but just 12-12 in opposing arenas, the league's largest disparity.
They were outscored 22-2 over a nearly seven-minute stretch spanning the fourth quarter and overtime in a 111-101 loss at Dallas on Saturday.
"Tonight was tough, to lose like that. But we've just got to bounce back tomorrow," said LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 25 points and 14 rebounds for his sixth straight double-double. "We outplayed them for all but two minutes. And those two minutes were the most important two minutes."
Damian Lillard scored 26 and was 4 of 10 from long range after going 5 for 40 in his previous five games. He had 18 points but missed all five 3-point attempts and committed six turnovers in the season series opener after averaging 25.5 points and going 23 of 47 from beyond the arc in the playoff series. Aldridge didn't play due to an illness.
Aldridge, who totaled 89 points over the playoff series' first two games, has averaged 28.4 points and 13.1 rebounds in his last seven regular-season meetings.
Portland, which hasn't lost eight straight road games in the same season since Oct. 30-Dec. 2, 2007, is 7-4 on the second night of back-to-backs but has dropped three straight.