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Rockets-Bucks Preview

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Dwight Howard made clear his intentions to opt out of the final year of current contract in order to cash in during free agency this offseason when salaries are expected to rise at a record pace.

That's reportedly part of the reason he hasn't been wearing a Milwaukee Bucks uniform since the trade deadline passed.

Instead, Howard will try to help the visiting Houston Rockets get back to .500 by beating the Bucks for the sixth straight time Monday night.

Reports surfaced that Milwaukee (24-35) and Houston (29-30) agreed to the parameters of a trade that would've sent Howard to the Bucks for a package that centered around Greg Monroe, but the deal was contingent upon Howard opting in for the final year of his contract.

As expected, Howard refused and intends to hit the open market. The Bucks wanted to guarantee another season with Howard rather than parting with quality players and draft picks for a rental who might not be enough to help them reach the playoffs.

Howard has a double-double in six of his last seven, but the Rockets have gone 2-5 in that stretch after falling 104-94 to San Antonio on Saturday. Howard finished with 11 points and 14 rebounds while James Harden had 27 for Houston, which fell behind 26-11 after one quarter and trailed by 31 in the second half.

The Rockets haven't led after the first quarter in any of their last nine. They've lost eight of their last 12 and sit in the Western Conference's final playoff spot, but they insist they're not the "broken" team interim coach J.B Bickerstaff referred to prior to All-Star weekend.

"We've just got to go out there and play better from the beginning," Howard said. "There's no books we can read or messages anyone can give us. It's about what we've got to do as a team.

"I don't think the score of (Saturday's) game showed the positive atmosphere we've had around here since the All-Star break."

Howard sat out with a left ankle sprain as Harden scored 30 points in a 102-98 win over the Bucks on Jan. 22 for Houston's fifth straight victory in the series. Harden is averaging 32.3 points while shooting 62.8 percent from the field and hitting 12 of 19 from 3-point range over the last three matchups.

Milwaukee has dropped back-to-back games after winning four of its previous five and began a five-game homestand with Saturday's 102-91 loss to Detroit. It sits 6 1/2 games behind the Pistons, Chicago and Charlotte for the East's final playoff spot with three other teams ahead of it.

"The last two games you can see the other teams are playing for something and the energy level is a lot different," coach Jason Kidd said.

Khris Middleton finished with 26 points and has had at least 20 in five of his last seven. Monroe finished with only 10, though, and has scored below his season average of 16.5 four times over the last seven since Kidd moved him to the bench.

Michael Carter-Williams finished with eight points and seven of Milwaukee's 21 turnovers. The Bucks rank near the bottom of the league with an average of 15.5 per game.

"(Turnovers have) been a problem for us all year," said Middleton, who along with Monroe scored 21 points in the first meeting with Houston. "We just have to correct it and slow it down."

The Bucks will be without recent addition Steve Novak for the rest of the season after he sprained his MCL against Detroit.

It's unclear if Clint Capela will be available for Houston. He's missed the last two with a sprained right foot.